Dear Cecil: Is it true that Isaac Newton was a virgin? Hoping there are other ways to assure scientific greatness, Douglas Leonard, Department of Astronomy, UC Berkeley
Of course he was a virgin. Once upon a time, so was Madonna. What’s tragic is that he may have died a virgin. Not that this is all that unusual. You met many electrical engineers? But mathematicians are probably the worst that way. How the math gene perpetuates itself is one of the mysteries of our age.
Admittedly this is an area where it is unwise to make blanket statements. (Sorry.) It’s not like they had the guy under constant surveillance. As one of my high school classmates unwisely asked at the lunch table one day, “What, technically, is the definition of a virgin?”
Still, having thus fenced out the boundaries of the knowable, we can say that, with the possible exception of one teenage friendship (there is no sign that it became physical), Isaac Newton apparently formed no romantic attachments during his 84 years of life. Furthermore, he was so straitlaced it seems unlikely he availed himself of, how shall I say, commercial outlets.
The penalty of genius, you are thinking. Not necessarily. Richard Feynman, one of the legendary minds of our time, was quite the bon vivant, and … well, I dare not even speak of myself.
Newton, in contrast, was walking proof that one path to immortality, assuming you have the requisite endowment of brains, is to obsess. Ninety percent of what he obsessed about — alchemy, biblical prophecy, and religious disputations were among his lifelong passions — was rubbish. The other ten percent, the stuff he did for laughs, I suppose we might say, took six thousand years of disjointed fumbling and made it into a science. Two sciences, actually, physics and to a large extent mathematics.
Too bad Newton didn’t have the benefit of modern management consultants. “Ike,” they would say, “if you chucked the alchemy and prophecy thing you could produce all the scientific achievements that will earn you glory and still leave most of the day for wine, women, and song.”
Didn’t happen, but let’s have some respect. One biographer credits him with “discovering gravitation,” and where would we be without that?
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