Sunday, 20 October 2013

Chasing Rainbows

Today I start a week-long mini-series on 3 lgbt scientists who worked on meteorology and climatology.

One scientist is most associated with the rainbow – or, more accurately, the spectrum – and that is Sir Isaac Newton. I place him in this mini-series because the spectrum and the rainbow are created in the same manner – by the splitting of light rays.

When it comes to listing historical lgbt people more often than not we are attempting to put modern labels onto people who were alive before such labels were invented. Were all Ancient Greek soldiers gay because they were expected to have regular sex and relationships with younger men? Did homosexuality exist before it was given that name? You could also ask if gravity existed before Newton gave it a name? Yes it did, we just understood it differently.

It may help to think of historical sexual orientation by using a phrase I encountered recently in reference to a scientist I’ll deal with in 3 days time, Alexander von Humboldt – “Queer refers not only to bisexual or homosexual men and women – it also includes straight people whose sexuality nevertheless falls outside social norms of behaviour”. In this respect I place Isaac Newton on my “queer” list.

In his own lifetime Newton was considered a bit eccentric because he was so engrossed in his work, was a private man at heart, and was noted for his criticism of other scientists than for his praise.

Before he went to Cambridge University Newton may have had a girlfriend, Catherine Storer, but nothing written by either of them survives so we’ll never know the exact nature of the relationship. Much later in life, it is said, Newton proposed marriage to Lady Norris, who obviously turned him down because Newton remained a bachelor all his life.

In between these two female love interests Newton had two male interests which have made historians and biographers question the nature of his friendship with them both.

In 1663 Newton began to share rooms at Cambridge with John Wickens. They lived together for 20 years. In that time they became very close (hardly surprising). Young John assisted Newton in his early experiments, including those into the colours of the rainbow, though whether John understood what Newton was doing is another question. Whether they were actually lovers will never be known, but, as was common practice right up to the 20th century, it is known that they slept together (by “slept together” I mean “slept together”).

The academic curriculum at universities at that time was based on the Classics, and all young undergraduates would have been taught about the Ancient Greeks and their same-sex practices. It is possible that many students would have secretly followed the practice themselves in imitation of the great civilisation and wouldn’t have considered it immoral or sodomy. With this in mind it makes it likely that Isaac Newton could have had sexual relations with John Wickens, a possibility rather than a probability. They may have enjoyed a non-sexual love. In the end their relationship ended when John left Cambridge to become a country vicar.

We move onto more substantial evidence of a relationship with the arrival on the scene in 1689 of a young Swiss mathematician called Nicolas Fatio de Duillier.

Fatio was as much a fan of alchemy and mysticism as Newton, probably more so, so they had more than a shared interest in maths. But it was Newton’s gravitational theories that helped to create the biggest pull (pardon the pun). Fatio was well established in England before he met Newton. The nature of their relationship raised eyebrows and people began to think of Fatio as a bad influence, calling him “a person of no value”, “a mere debauchee”, and “Newton’s ape”.

Newton was certainly flattered by Fatio’s attention and gave him money and gifts, and an offer of accommodation. Letters between them reveal a mutual attraction which hints at something more than their mentor/pupil relationship, going beyond the accepted norms of the time. No letters written to women, by either of them, survive which contain such affection – “… the reasons I should not marry will probably last as long as my life”, wrote Fatio to Newton knowingly.

Fatio’s career took him around Europe though it was not to help with his reputation. Having joined a fanatic French religious sect he was condemned with them as cheats and false prophets and placed in the stocks. The whole affair took Fatio away from regular contact with Newton and contributed to Newton’s breakdown.

They never lost touch completely. Fatio sided with Newton against Leibnitz over the debate about who created calculus. After Newton’s death he helped Newton’s nephew to design the monument in Westminster Abbey familiar to all “Da Vinci Code” fans.

We’ll never know for sure what romantic feelings Sir Isaac Newton felt towards his fellow men – or women. To use an analogy with his work, it would be like chasing rainbows. Whether or not we can truly call Newton gay, there is little doubt that his strong emotional attachments to men more than to women places him on my queer list.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know they slept in the same bed if that is your assumption is not the same that sleep in the same home. The truth is that we will never know the nature of these relationships and if these could be physical or even strong emotionally beyond common friendship and his sexuality in general (hetero, bi, gay, asexual or ''queer'') , but nevertheless good article.

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