Sailing Scientist

Steven Shapin

  • Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas by Alan Cook
    Oxford, 540 pp, £29.50, December 1997, ISBN 0 19 850031 9

Joined for all time on the title-page of the Book that Made the Modern World are Isaac Newton (who wrote the Principia Mathematica) and Samuel Pepys (who, as President of the Royal Society, licensed it to be printed). It is one of the oddest couples in the history of thought: the man who, as a late 17th-century Cambridge student was heard to say, had ‘writt a book that neither he nor any body else understands’ and one of the multitude who understood scarcely a word of it; the wholly other and the all-too-human; the virgin ascetic who accused John Locke of trying to ‘embroil’ him with women, and the supreme London boulevardier whose consuming passions included Château Haut-Brion, the theatre and serial embroilments with women.

Turn the page and the odd couple is joined by a third, for here appears the name of the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) – the midwife to modernity. Halley it was who pressed Newton to write the book, who saw it through the press and corrected the sheets, who paid for its publication out of his own pocket, and who prepared a précis for personal presentation to the King – one of the earliest scientific soundbites. ‘But for him, in all human probability’, wrote Augustus de Morgan in the mid-19th century, the Principia ‘would not have been thought of, nor when thought of written, nor when written printed’. Halley ‘almost made’ Newton write the book.

Halley was alter ego to the wholly other. He understood both the significance of Newton’s celestial dynamics and the emotional dynamics of Newton’s tortured soul. Over more than a year, he coaxed and cajoled Newton into completing the project, ever mindful that, at any moment, alternative claims to priority or even mild public expressions of scepticism might draw Achilles sulking back from open philosophical engagement to his Cambridge mathematical tent. Five or six hundred copies were printed; bound in calf it cost about nine shillings; and Halley’s total profit on the business of modernity-making was about £10.

Newton’s Preface acknowledged Halley – ‘it was to his solicitations that its becoming publick is owing’ – and Halley prefixed an encomiastic Latin ode of his own composition, in the style of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, that set the standard for later panegyrics:

Come celebrate with me in song the name
Of Newton, to the Muses dear; for he
Unlocked the hidden treasuries of Truth:
So richly through his mind had Phoebus cast
The radiance of his own divinity.
Nearer the gods no mortal may approach.

Halley meant it – he was in love with Newton’s ‘divine Treatise’ – and history has repaid him accordingly. To the late Victorians Halley was a Good Second: ‘the second most illustrious of Anglo-Saxon philosophers’.

If you want to understand the culture that joined Newton and Pepys on the Principia’s title-page, your best bet is understanding Edmond Halley. For it was Halley’s life that linked the intellectually transcendent with the mundanely practical, the life of solitary scholarship with pressing Crown concerns. There was as much of Pepys as there was of Newton in Halley’s make-up and in his life’s projects.

Pepys’s father was a London tailor; Halley’s was a soap-boiler, although a very rich one with a sideline in real estate. Both went to St Paul’s School, did well at university, and early on attracted patronage in high places that set the course of their future careers. Both were excellent company, assiduous networkers, habitués of taverns and coffee-houses, energetic, wide-ranging in their interests, and abundantly endowed with self-esteem. Pepys was the progressive administrator, Halley the precise astronomer, but sea-water ran through their veins with equal strength. The Navy and naval concerns substantially structured their careers. In the late 1680s, Pepys was probably one of the sponsors of Halley’s surveys of English coastal waters. And Pepys knew very well what Halley was worth: he was ‘the first Englishman’ to be a master in ‘the science and practice (both) of navigation’.

Temperamentally and socially unlike, the links between Halley and Newton were professional and disciplinary. Both were at times professors of mathematics; both were driven by the passion for precision and exactness, the yearning to subject the physical world to the discipline of the measure and the rule. In that task Halley was Newton’s operational right arm.

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