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Image of Newton reopens historic divide

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The unveiling last week of a 12-feet-high, bronze statue of the seventeenth century physicist Sir Isaac Newton (right), outside the British Library's new building in central London, has renewed a debate over the significance of the painting by the eighteenth century poet and artist William Blake (below right), on which the design of the statue is based.

Sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi says his statue is intended to show how art and science are interconnected. But at least one historian says the choice of subject is inappropriate, as Blake was highly critical of the English physicist.

Both the £175,000 (US$280,000) statue, as well as Blake's original painting of Newton, show the physicist bending forward to plot or measure the Universe.

Simon Schaffer, reader in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, says that this image was not designed to depict Newton in a flattering light. “Blake is associating Newton with an image of God as a tyrannical, and powerful measurer of the world. He is not celebrating Newton at all.”

But Paolozzi, an honorary professor at the Royal College of Art in London, says: “If you see the original it shows that Blake made Newton into a God. He was extremely respectful of [Newton's] abilities.” Paolozzi says that the imagery in the painting is at worst “a slight dig” at Newton.

Schaffer points out that Blake was among the first poets who attempted to understand the implications of Newton's natural philosophy at a time when most contemporaries were happy merely to celebrate the triumph of reason. He says Blake disapproved of the view that science and reason were sufficient in themselves to explain the workings of the Universe, or those of life on Earth.

Blake, says Schaffer, was also critical of libraries, which he felt encouraged knowledge to be accumulated for display, instead of being put to practical use.

But one leading art historian says the statue's concept is neither unusual nor inconsistent. It follows an established tradition in art in which the founders of mathematical sciences — Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Euclid — are shown measuring the world.

Ken Shirreffs, a spokesman for the British Library, says all those involved in the project are “aware of the ambiguities of Blake's views regarding Newton”. But he adds that the statue has a much wider significance. “It is a fusion of art and science,” and is an appropriate symbol for the British Library. The library opens in November.

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Masood, E. Image of Newton reopens historic divide. Nature 389, 221 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/38363

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