To Conquer a Virus and Unweave a Rainbow

When the recent coronavirus shut-in hit, and the Michigan governor’s stay-at-home order forced its way through my phone by emergency text message, I took one last fleeting look at my campus office bookshelf for any last-minute tome I might bring with me as I escaped to the safety of my country estate. For a moment that old copy of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy looked like the clear winner, when suddenly my eyes fell upon it: the colorful spectrum running down the spine under the mildly misspelled title Opticks, by Sir Isaac Newton. I immediately knew this was the text that would see me through the impending quarantine, with or without toilet paper.

A physics text could hardly be more appropriate for the times. Newton famously did much of his work on Opticks while self-isolating from the plague. From within the dreary darkness of his shuttered room, closed off from the world and the virus raging outside and with a single beam of sunlight let in by a hole in the shades, Newton teased out one of the great secrets of the universe, and one of the great questions humankind has been asking since he first opened his eyes and looked upon the world: what is light, and what is color?

Yet for all of this, Newton’s Opticks gets precious little attention. Let’s be honest: the natural sciences are not well-represented in the usual college “Top 10 Must-Read” lists. If anything, Euclid generally makes the cut, but that’s about as far as you get on the quantitative side of the brain. And anyway, if there were one science book that should be a contender, it should be Newton’s Principia: that epic work in which Newton starts with four simple postulates on motion and gravity and deduces an entire “System of the World,” a monument to human knowledge that stood for centuries and was only supplanted by no less earth shattering developments as Einstein’s relativity and Quantum Mechanics. However, the Principia simply will not do. It is the most important book that no one has ever read with good reasons. First, it is in Latin, and second, it is developed in a complicated form of mathematics which is difficult to understand. Newton may have even done these things intentionally to make it less accessible to the average person, an impervious mask against vulgar criticism from the oft not-socially-distanced-enough masses.

But Newton’s Opticks is the dark-horse candidate. The Opticks has several points to recommend it, besides being written by the great Newton himself: 1) Unlike Principia, Newton wrote the Opticks in plain English, so you don’t have to be fluent in Latin to read it, and 2) The math-minimizing narrative style is such that the average person on the street can pick it up and (after thoroughly wiping it down with Clorox) use it as a how-to for discovering the mysteries of nature. This is exactly what the self-taught Benjamin Franklin did on his way to “capturing the lightning from the sky.” 

So when I put on my trusty bifocals and finally picked up Newton’s Opticks to read for myself in the virus-free safety of my home, I was not disappointed. Truly, I was delighted. There is a certain understated elegance and majesty in it. Here we are seeing one of the world’s most brilliant and powerful minds work through some of the most important and long-standing questions in human history, in an elegant methodical way, punctuated by little personal charms, such as visions of Newton playing with bubbles and bird feathers in an attempt to decode the colors playing within them.

The Opticks of course is not without criticism. In it, Newton puts forward a particle view of light, a view that was displaced and buried over and over again by experiments throughout the 1700s and 1800s. This view was completely dead until it suddenly wasn’t with Einstein’s 1905 photon explanation of the photoelectric effect which helped to usher in quantum mechanics.

Another criticism has come from the pen of the poets. Here is from Keats poem “Lamia”:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

  I would say on the contrary, the Opticks is a very charming work of cold philosophy. In Newton’s hands, cold philosophy itself is “awful” (in the way that I believe Keats means it, as in “a thing full of awe”). At Newton’s touch, cold philosophy explodes into light and color. It is not a dull catalogue but a tour-de-force of human intellectual achievement. Explaining the rainbow, far from conquering all mystery, removes the mask to reveal another set of more and more profound mysteries.

Although in his quarantine Newton managed to solve the mystery of light, in my quarantine I barely managed to finish reading Newton’s account of it, let alone make any discoveries of my own. Newton didn’t have Zoom teaching responsibilities at Cambridge during his pandemic after all, although his discoveries would set us on the road to the Internet. I did purchase a few prisms on Amazon during lock-down and with the light streaming into our living room I introduced my children to that “awful rainbow” that Newton unwove. And at least for them, the air was still haunted with gnomes and Lamias, while our adult air was haunted by a new virus, the mysteries of which we dearly hoped science would conquer soon.

Dr. Hosmer is the Chairman and an Associate Professor of the Hillsdale College Physics Department

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