04.01.2023 at 10:52 pm

Newton's Commonplace Beginnings

Isaac Newton's use of waste paper to learn and progress.

Isaac Newton did his thing with recycled old paper, mostly.

Imagine that: one of the greatest stewards of modern mathematics and sciences -- and he who bestowed humanity with calculus and an understanding of gravity -- has only the most basic reverence for paper. For its utility, over its beauty.

See Newton's 'Waste Book', archived at the University of Cambridge. The story goes: in a time when physical paper was precious, Newton inherited bound papers. These contained theological content, which he had no regard for. So instead, he used those papers to scribble his thoughts:

... The most cherished legacy that Newton received from his stepfather, Barnabas Smith (1582-1653), seems to have been this vast manuscript commonplace book Add. 4004. ... Smith himself had made extensive use of these books, in compiling a volume of theological commonplaces. This consisted of hundreds of folios bound in pasteboard, ruled at the top and in the margin of each folio to allow space for a heading and references to each entry. Newton was not interested by the very pedestrian efforts in divinity, largely the culling of quotations ... He wanted its paper.

One might see Newton's choice to scribble over theology as... sacrilegious.

Yet Newton did have a more valuable meaning for 'waste' - in addition to napkin-like math, Newton took to his book to remark on geometry, mathematics and other important things. (So even had there been sin in his scribbling on theological notes, one might find virtue in his acts still.)

I found these further interesting:

  1. Newton retained prior content. He did not remove working content (though we modern people might be inclined to think of such as clutter and remove them). To Newton, those served as cut-off points, expansion points or thoughts to come back to.

  2. He displayed consistent/deliberate practice, rather than sudden enlightenment. His scratches were upon the the backs of giants. And he used his personal dissatisfaction to test the limits of contemporary mathematical knowledge:

    ...By September 1664, Newton had started to use some of the pages for the optical and mathematical calculations, inspired by Descartes and van Schooten, that were beginning to occupy him (see Add. 3996 and Fitzwilliam Museum, MS. 1-1936). Over the next two years, Newton broadened his reading only slightly. Nevertheless, through the study of Wallis' works and of the other authors (Johann Hudde, Hendrick van Heuraet, and Jan de Witt) whose writings were presented by van Schooten in his edition of Descartes' Geometria (1639-41), Newton gradually mastered the analysis of curved lines, surfaces, and solids. He learned how to use the method of infinite series and extended it by discovering how to expand binomials with fractional indices. Most significantly, he developed an approach to the measurement of curved lines that mapped the motion that produced them. This arose out of dissatisfaction with the method of infinitesimals and the advances towards describing curves through their tangents that Newton had made with it. By autumn 1665, Newton had worked out a method for replacing the use of infinitesimal increments of space in his calculations with instantaneous changes in the velocity of a moving point by which curved lines were described. Stimulated entirely by his reading, Newton had invented the method of fluxions, or calculus, through the working in his 'Waste Book' [fols 57r-57v].

So think again, if you 'need' fancy expensive moleskines, luxury notebooks and acid-free paper. Sir Isaac Newton had no need for those. Do you?

One question though: how did Newton search for relevant notes, amongst the many? The man was a prolific note-taker, to say the least. In the 1600s, in an age before search engines, it's a wonder how Newton would even know where a particular thought or note was first developed or would be located.

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