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Theatre: The needle in Newton's eye

A play about Isaac Newton's self-experimentation illuminates scientific rivalry, finds Alla Katsnelson

Isaac's Eye

Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York City Until 24 February 2013

Scientists occasionally conduct experiments on themselves. Among the most famous was Isaac Newton's extraordinary method for probing the nature of colour. He stuck a bodkin, a long sewing needle with a blunt point, into his eye socket, between eye and bone, and recorded seeing coloured circles and other visual phenomena. In his new play, Isaac's Eye, Lucas Hnath uses this bizarre experiment to explore scientific rivalry, the nature of truth and knowledge, and how the narratives of science and life congeal.

Isaac's Eye headlines the fifteenth annual First Light festival, a collaboration between the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York to fund drama that explores scientific concepts and personalities. Hnath has looked to science for creative fodder since his undergraduate days at New York University. His first such work, which won a Sloan-sponsored writing competition, was a screenplay whose protagonist, computer scientist Adan Turner, finds himself imitating Alan Turing.

“I tend to write characters who try to push some kind of limit — who are trying to experience something that no one has ever before experienced,” he says. “Inevitably, you have to deal with science if you go in that direction.”

“Perhaps the real story is in how truth is told and perceived.”

In his new drama, Hnath plays with history, presenting a fictional backstory to the legendary conflict between Newton, when he was still unknown, and the well-respected physicist Robert Hooke. “There's a law named after me,” Hooke brags repeatedly throughout the play. In 1665, when the play is set, the plague is ravaging England while an ambitious Newton is being eaten away by the desire to join the Royal Society. Newton writes repeatedly to Hooke — then-Curator of Experiments — demanding that he be considered for membership. Receiving no reply, he sends Hooke a package containing the sole copy of all his writings. When Hooke sees that much of Newton's research treads the same ground as his own, he decides to visit Newton and take him down a peg or three. The fictional encounter shakes up the course of both men's lives, as well as that of Catherine Storer, an apothecary's daughter who may have been a youthful romantic interest of Newton's.

The tension between the childish Newton, with his unpleasant moralistic streak allied to a tendency to fight dirty, and the callous, hedonistic Hooke, fuels the gripping narrative. Catherine, a realist, grounds the saga by trying to tempt both men to give up research for a mundane life. But perhaps the real story here is in how truth is told and perceived. Historians have criticized Newton for embellishing facts: his theory of gravity, for example, might not have been inspired by a falling apple. This tendency towards myth-making emerges early in the play, when Hooke accuses Newton of writing up experiments as though they were conducted in a single afternoon. Newton can't grasp the criticism. “It's clearer that way,” he responds.

Sensing Hooke's reluctance to support him, Newton tells a lie. He claims that he has stabbed a bodkin under his eye to prove his own theory about the nature of light — and disprove Hooke's. Hooke calls his bluff, but when the scientists perform the experiment for real — first on a semi-willing subject, then on Newton — the truth is no clearer. The wincing in the audience during these highly realistic scenes was almost palpable, however.

“In some ways, this play is about how many liberties you decide to take when trying to convey something that's true,” says Hnath. To help viewers sort fact from fiction, Hnath employed the conceit of a nameless narrator who uses cardboard signs and a chalkboard to wrangle known facts about the two scientists' lives into a list of bullet points. It's the seventeenth-century version of PowerPoint. But in the end, tweaking reality — as Hnath so skillfully does — might provide the clearer picture of the human truths in this scientific tug-of-war.

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Correspondence to Alla Katsnelson.

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Katsnelson, A. Theatre: The needle in Newton's eye. Nature 494, 175 (2013).

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