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The Apprenticeship of Genius

First edition of the Principia
First edition of the Principia (London, 1687) –
Cambridge University Library, Portsmouth
Collection, Adv.b.39.1

The rusticity and provincialism of the Lincolnshire manor house where Newton was born contrasted sharply with the cosmopolitanism and intellectual sophistication of Cambridge University, where he arrived in June 1661. He would remain in Cambridge for thirty-five years, and the university would contribute significantly to the maturation of his genius.

Portrait of Isaac Newton
Portrait of Isaac Newton, based on John Vanderbank's
1725 painting – Science, Industry and Business
Library, NYPL

Newton was not the “solitary and dejected” autodidact he is commonly perceived to have been. Nor was the university a bastion of scholasticism or intellectual stagnation. The well-rounded and humanistically informed Cambridge curriculum proved indispensable to Newton’s grounding in the culture of erudition, and propitious to the formation of his scientific methodology and distinct style of reasoning. Cambridge also provided Newton with access to books and like-minded colleagues – above all, his mentor, friend, and patron Isaac Barrow. In this sense Newton truly stood “on the shoulders of giants,” as he once wrote (albeit tongue-in-cheek) to Robert Hooke.

Much of Newton’s genius consisted of his remarkable ability to simultaneously consume and transform any knowledge he acquired. Consequently, his celebrated anni mirabiles (wondrous years) back in Lincolnshire during the plague (1665–66) were not cut off from his Cambridge experience, but were its natural extension. Samuel Johnson, therefore, was surely correct to conclude that Newton stood alone “merely because he had left the rest of mankind behind him, not because he deviated from the beaten track.”

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