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An eye-opening chat: Lucas Hnath, Matthew L. Jones, Matthew Stanley, and Gabriel Cwilich discuss the characters, science, and times behind ISAAC’S EYE

Author: 
Rich Kelley

Following the February 20 performance of Isaac’s Eye, the playwright Lucas Hnath joined two professors of the history of science, Matthew Stanley from New York University and Matthew L. Jones from Columbia University, to discuss the historical background of the play: the scientists Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, the experiments they did, and the times they lived in. EST/Sloan science advisor Gabriel Cwilich of Yeshiva University moderated the discussion. The excerpts below give a flavor of the far-ranging fifty-minute discussion. You can listen to the entire proceedings on “Inside Isaac,” the February 24 and 25 episodes of the Science Talk podcast from Scientific American.

Cwilich: Lucas, I’m going to start by asking a question I’ve been asking you for the last couple of years. Why Newton? Why, Lucas, why?

Hnath: I first got the idea to write the play when I was listening to a podcast of the Leonard Lopate show on my walk home. He was interviewing George Johnson who wrote a book called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. In passing Johnson mentioned this experiment where Newton placed a needle in his eye. On my walk home I just started imagining what that would look like on stage. I thought that would make for an interesting stage action.  To put a needle in your eye. And you’re incapacitated while you’ve got a needle in your eye. That seems to be a bad position to be in. But that doesn’t really make a play. What would compel this person to put a needle in his eye? So I started looking for potent conflicts in Newton’s career. And one that stood out to me was the one with Robert Hooke. The two had several points of contention in their beliefs. But they also seemed like very disparate personalities. Hooke is sleeping around a lot and studying a lot of different subjects. Newton is more monastic in his approach to science and to the outside world. That’s a rough version of the origin story.

Cwilich: Matthew, tell us something about the real Newton and how much of the real Newton do we see in the play?

Jones: Well, you get a definite flavor of the real Newton. When he was battling, he was battling indeed. The dispute over who invented the calculus was a big and nasty dispute in part because Newton organized the papers such that we could follow his victory and he organized a publishing campaign against his bitter enemy Leibniz, who had no power actually at the time. But one thing we really get a sense of is the extent to which he was deeply concerned with the problems of the human being and coming to know them. And that was very much a problem of our bodies as well as our minds. And I think Lucas was right to focus on this moment in which the evidence suggests he really did constantly stick what he called a bodkin in his eye. Because he wanted to know not just something about theories of light but also something fundamentally about how fragile we are as sensing and thinking beings. It’s just a fundamental thing for him but it’s a fundamental thing indeed for the entire period in which he’s operating. And his answers are at once quite askew to those of his contemporaries and also transformative in the development of science. So we capture a lot of that. And one of the things I like a lot about the play is the way in which the emotional content of his character is also captured in the rather innovative approach that he takes to what they called natural philosophy.

Stanley: One of the things I’ve always liked about the needle experiment is that it’s not an experiment all by itself but sort of demonstrates an important part of Newton’s character. That he sort of sat down one day and said to himself, “Now I’m going to figure out colors.” And he said, “Where are all the different places where you might study color?  Well, we see it in glass and we see it in water. And we need to look at how we can mix different chemicals together. And you know sometimes when you stare at the sun you see some colors. So I’ll stare at the sun for a while.” And he does this long enough that he incapacitates himself and he has to lay out for a few days. And then he discovers at some point – and everyone can do this experiment without hurting themselves – that if you press on your eye a little bit you do see these funny little rings. And he says, “I should check that out, too.” This is one little part of this entire project to learn everything about colors. And then once he’s experienced them all, then he can figure out what it really means and the truth behind it.

Cwilich: This play is all about seeing. What role did optics play in Newton’s life?

Jones: Given Newton’s theological orientation, to understand the laws of optics was to very fundamentally understand something about the divine making. Light had long been associated with divine agency and was something other than this world. That is unquestionably one of the reasons he was so deeply interested in it and it reflects a lot of the work that he does.  And it’s in the Opticks that he’s the most speculative. Late in his life he publishes many editions of Opticks (available in a reprint by Dover with a foreword by Albert Einstein). And at the end of the book he has a long series of queries where the true beliefs of Newton are allowed to say their name, bizarre things about fermentation and other sorts of stuff. These set an entire research program for generations of English scientists in the eighteenth century. So it’s utterly central to what he does on all sorts of levels.

Stanley: Yes, one of the interesting things I find about Newton and optics, that’s reflected nicely in the structure of the play, is that it brackets his whole life. It’s one of the first things that Newton can get serious traction on as a young man. He can show that he can do it better than the Cartesians, so that’s appealing.  It’s a time when glass technology is advancing rapidly, so he has new sorts of tools. It’s amenable to mathematical investigation and it’s connected to transcendent issues. So it’s a perfect storm for the young Newton to tackle the particular issues he’s interested in. And then when he’s older it’s also his victory lap. He writes the Opticks once he’s President of the Royal Society and he can finally say what he really thinks about light and God and matter and gravity and living inside God’s brain and fermentation and all these things that he can only say at the end. In that sense I like that you get the full arc of the experience of Newton.

Cwilich: Let’s not leave out the other big character in this play, the incredibly interesting Robert Hooke . . .

Jones: I was very pleased to see Hooke here. He functions very effectively, if anachronistically, as you indicate at the end of the play. Hooke, like Newton, came from very modest social circumstances. And that modesty of his social circumstances, despite his having gone to Oxford, is what enabled him to do what he did. Without him the Royal Society would have been a talking club and of very little significance. He had a knowledge of the topography of London – if you wanted to get anything from drugs to any kind of chemical thing or any mechanical contrivance – he could call in favors and have it done almost overnight. So Leibniz demonstrates a calculating machine and Hooke says – and this is classic for Hooke – “Oh, I already have one of those.” Which was complete crap. But a month later he demonstrates one that probably worked better – it’s one of the missing items alluded to in the play. But he could do that. Now that meant that the Royal Society could be more than words about intervening in nature. Because Hooke is the one who could get air pumps working because he knew where to get cement. Remember this is an age when nothing is standardized. No chemicals. You can’t depend on anything. Which is why Huygens and Newton blow their own glass and make their own lenses, because you couldn’t trust anyone. Hooke was a master of this. His character – he’s a wheeler dealer with knowledge of the street – is integral to the kind of science and technology he does. It couldn’t happen if he weren’t this kind of character.

One thing I very much liked in the play: The diary, like the needle in the eye – those are tools of investigating the perversities of the self. There’s this deep and profound sense that these scientists don’t know how to trust themselves as individuals. The answers that philosophy has given don’t count. Diaries, as well as sticking needles in your eyes, are investigating yourself so that you may be able to have any sense of what you might be able to say about their nature. They’re integrative practices.  And it’s not accidental that Hooke is writing this diary around the same time as Samuel Pepys. We don’t have diaries of this kind if you go fifty years earlier. They’re just not there. Whereas for the next century and a half we’re going to have too many. And they’re not nearly as interesting as Hooke’s.

Stanley: In terms of legacy one of the things I find interesting about Hooke is that he sort of gets written out of history in a very important way. Partly that’s because Newton wants to crush all the records of his rival. But partly it’s because the gifts that Hooke brought to the investigation of experimental philosophy were mechanical and messy and dirty and relied on your hands and knowing how to make cement and smoking enough opium before you worked on the air pump. And those were the sort of characteristics that men of science did not necessarily want to associate themselves with. Hooke was so closely associated with the messy effectiveness of experimentation, that people were happy to not talk about him, because they didn’t want science to look messy. So, in that sense, Hooke is great insofar as people didn’t talk about him.

Jones: One thing I should say about Hooke is despite the nature of their rivalry, Hooke knew his lack of the kind of mathematical gifts that Newton had and it was really under Hooke’s prodding and indeed almost by creating the rivalry that he enabled Newton to come out of his shell. Newton had produced this unbelievable new mathematics and this unbelievable new account of motion but he hadn’t done anything. He just sat on this stuff and was totally ambivalent about publication and especially after the disaster that had happened when his optical paper was published. Hooke for all of his faults had a sense that Newton could solve these problems and indeed out of that almost forced Newton’s hand into producing the Principia, which truly is a turning point in .the way one thinks about the relationship between mathematics and physics.

The current production of Isaac's Eye runs through March 10. More details here

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