This being the 300th anniversary of Newton's Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, I've been wondering about other anniversaries that fall this year: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1387), Leonardo's painting of the Virgin of the Rocks (1487), Marlowe's Tamburlaine (1587), Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787), Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals (1887).
The eighty-seventh year of the century seems to have been an auspicious time for art and scholarship. Still, if we had to choose just one of these great works to celebrate, we ought surely to give the Principia first place. Newton's law of gravitation, which states that "every body in the universe attracts every other with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them", has been described as the greatest generalisation ever made by the human mind.
What then if we had to choose just one of these works to consign to oblivion? If the choice were forced, I'd have little doubt which it should be: the Principia would have to go. How so? Because, of all those works, Newton's was the only one that was replaceable. Quite simply: if Newton had not written it, then someone else would have done probably within the space of a few years.
C.P.Snow, in the Two Cultures, extolled the great discoveries of science as "scientific Shakespeare". But in one way he was fundamentally mistaken. Shakespeare's plays were Shakespeare's plays and no one else's; scientific discoveries, by contrast, belong ultimately to no one in particular. Take away the person Shakespeare, or Chaucer, or Mozart and you'd take away the arbitrary creation of a one-off human mind; take away Newton, or Darwin, or Einstein and you'd take away nothing that could not eventually be replaced by Mind at large.
It may be unfashionable to say that the job of science is to uncover God's pre-existing truths. But, notwithstanding today's "subject-centred theories of reality", I think science does just that. There are pre-existing truths out there waiting to be found, and it is the job of the scientist to uncover them. In no way however could the same be said of art. There are no pre- existing books out there waiting to be written, nor pre-existing pictures waiting to be painted.
Consider the disputes that arise in science, but not in art, about "priority". Newton quarrelled fiercely with Liebniz about which of them had in fact invented the differential calculus before the other, and with Hooke about who had discovered the inverse square law. But while, say, there may once have been room for dispute about whether Marlowe actually wrote Shakespeare's plays, no one would ever have suggested that Marlowe got there before Shakespeare.
Newton had a dog called Diamond. One day, the story goes, the dog knocked over a candle, set fire to some papers and destroyed "the unfinished labours of some years". "Oh Diamond, Diamond!", Newton cried, "thou little knowest the mischief done!". Suppose that the papers had been the manuscript of the Principia, and that Newton, in chagrin or despair, had given up doing science. Mischief, indeed. None the less, Diamond's mischief would hardly have changed the course of history. If Diamond, however, had been Chaucer's dog and had set fire to the Canterbury Tales, the loss would truly have been irrecoverable.
General Wolfe said of Gray's Elegy "I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec". In 1887 Eiffel built the Eiffel Tower. Would it be understandable for anyone to say they would rather have built the Eiffel Tower than have written the Principia? It would depend on what his or her personal ambitions were. The Principia was a glorious monument to human intellect, the Eiffel Tower was a relatively minor feat of romantic engineering; yet the fact is that while Eiffel did it his way, Newton merely did it God's way.
To be God's scribe, as Newton was, is not to have an undistinguished role. Nevertheless I'd conclude until someone shows me why I'm wrong that any person who wants to leave their own peculiar mark on the landscape of other people's minds, should build towers, paint pictures or write stories rather than devote themselves to uncovering the scientific truth. As a scientist myself I find this conclusion worth thinking about, if not worth trying to live by.
[First published in The Guardian, 26 August 1987.]