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