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Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was the greatest and the luckiest of mortals. The greatest because he discovered the law of universal gravitation, the luckiest because there was only one universe. This tribute, imputed to the eighteenth-century French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, captures the singular position that the author of the Principia and the Opticks came to occupy as the acme of human possibility. Newton’s spectacular contributions to mathematics and natural philosophy – the discovery of the calculus, the articulation of a radical new theory of light and colors, the unification of terrestrial and celestial mechanics under a single law – brought the era of the Scientific Revolution to a spectacular close. They also charted the course of science for the next two centuries. Had he lived in antiquity, contemporaries had little doubt, Newton would surely have been deified.

Plate from Shauplatz der Nature und der Künste
Plate from Shauplatz der Nature und der
(Vienna, 1774) – General
Research Division, NYPL

But Newton’s influence transcended the domain of science. During a time when the mathematical sciences and natural philosophy were integral to a broader encyclopedia of knowledge, these domains set an example of so-called superior knowledge for other disciplines to emulate: the search for rational, universal principles became the modus vivendi for all researchers, regardless of field. Naturally, some dissented from this summons to reorient knowledge, sparking heated debates over the applicability of mathematics (and physics) to other areas of science, as well as between the sciences and the humanities over the kind of knowledge most worth having.

With time, the historical Newton, overshadowed by the very legacy he helped create, metamorphosed into the very personification of science. From the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, artists and architects sanctified his genius and his contribution to science in their work.

This exhibition tells the story of the conception and diffusion of Newton’s ideas, and the tensions and often public clashes they engendered. Notwithstanding these burgeoning controversies, or perhaps because of them, for friends and foes alike Newton became an icon to be emulated or rejected, revered or excoriated – but always there to contend with. Hence, the era of Enlightenment and Revolution may be viewed as the Newtonian Moment.

Mordechai Feingold, Curator
Professor of History, California Institute of Technology

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