I recently read Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter.  It wasn’t the most fast-paced book, and the message that got across to me most clearly was that 17th century London was a terrible, terrible place (apparently 2 in 3 children died before age 5).  But it still had some pretty good stories about Isaac Newton.

As a young man, Newton was apparently best described as eccentric and relentlessly curious. The book recounts some of his many experiments, most of which are pretty cool and a couple of which are a little alarming.  Like the time he inserted a bodkin (a long, flat needle) behind his eye and observed what effect the distortion of his eyeball shape had on his vision.  (You can read the description for yourself on the right.  Apparently sticking a needle behind your eye causes you to see colored circles.)

For me, though, the absolute highlight of the book was the “debtor’s ledger of sins” that Isaac Newton meticulously maintained during his college years.  Newton was apparently a very god-fearing man — at least he spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about god — and as a young man he felt the need to catalog his sins as a form of penitence.

It feels a little like voyeurism, but this list is too great not to share.  Here is part of it, as presented in Newton and the Counterfeiter, in Isaac Newton’s own words:

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The young Isaac Newton’s “debtor’s ledger of sins”:

• Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer
• Denying that I did so
• Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar
• Calling Derothy Rose a jade
• Punching my sister
• Striking many
• Wishing death and hoping it to some
• Threating my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
• Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne
• Making pies on Sunday night
• Squirting water on Thy day
• Not turning nearer to Thee according to my belief
• Setting my heart on money learning pleasures more than Thee
• having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamses

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UPDATE: A more complete list has been compiled by The Newton Project, here.

1. October 15, 2009 8:18 pm

Thanks for this little gem. Now I know two things Newton could do, but I will never: invent a branch of mathematics, and stick a need in my eye.

October 27, 2009 4:36 pm

For those of you who don’t care to squint at your screen, I’ll type out Newton’s description of the “bodkin behind the eyeball” experiment here:

“I tooke a bodkin (gh) and put it betwixt my eye and ye bone as neare to ye backside of my eye as I could: and pressing my eye with ye end of it (so as to make ye curvature (abcdef) in my eye) there appeared severall white, darke, and coloured circles (r,s,t, etc.) Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye with ye point of ye bodkin, but if I held my eye and ye bodkin still, though I continued to presse my eye with it yet ye circles would grow faint and often disappeare untill I renewed them by moving my eye or ye bodkin.”

3. July 15, 2011 5:04 am

I like how Newton spoke like Gollum: “having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamses”.

July 15, 2011 7:52 am

I’d rather stick a feather in my cap.

5. July 22, 2011 10:29 am

Wow, so all that stuff in Stephenson’s Quicksilver is based on reality. I suspected as much.

6. May 1, 2012 10:01 am

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