On this day in 1727 (in the Julian calendar that was in use in England at that time) Sir Isaac Newton died. Some of you, like myself, may have seen his tomb in Westminster Abbey, London, but if a French architect called Étienne-Louis Boullée (1728-1799) had got his way Newton would also be commemorated in a colossal 150 meter (492 feet) diameter spherical cenotaph in Paris. I’m glad I haven’t decided to publish this article tomorrow, April Fool’s Day, because you’d probably think it was a hoax.
First of all, let’s get Newton’s sexuality out of the way. In 2013 I wrote about Newton’s probable place on the lgbt spectrum (very apt description bearing in mind his work on the spectrum and rainbows). Very little information is available to say for sure how Newton would have identified his sexuality, assuming he ever thought about it. Thinking about it and labelling it seems to be a very modern thing to do. In 2013 I was content, and still am, to place him in our modern “queer” category without putting any other modern gender or sexuality label upon him. No doubt historians and scientists will be debating the subject for centuries.
As far as Newton’s scientific reputation is concerned there is no doubt. He was hailed as a champion of reason over superstition, which is ironic because he believed in astrology and witchcraft (not the modern Wiccan faith which didn’t exist in his day). After his death many architects and artists began designing tombs and monuments for him. Only Westminster Abbey was deemed appropriate for his official state tomb.
The Westminster tomb and the other un-built monuments emphasised Newton’s contribution to science, which was invariably illustrated with images of ancient Greek gods and religious symbolism. The colossal design by Étienne-Louis Boullée in 1784 did away with most of this un-scientific and superstitious decoration (except for thousands of cypress trees, symbols of mourning in the ancient Greek religion). The design used simple shapes, primarily the sphere. Below is one of Boullée’s drawings.
In the words of Dr. Patricia Ricci, Associate Professor of the History of Art and Director of the Department of Fine Art at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, “Its controversial theme, enormous size, and innovative design doomed the project from the start.” If it had been built it would have been the tallest building in the world at 150 meters (480 feet) tall, about 8 meters (26 feet) taller than the then record holder, Strasbourg cathedral.
The main feature of the cenotaph was the 150 meter sphere. Visitors would have entered the building at ground level and walk up a large staircase into a tunnel that led right into the centre of the structure. There visitors would be surrounded by the huge hollow interior. If visiting during the daytime people would see the whole surface of the sphere around them display an accurate portrayal of the stars and constellations. This was achieved by each star being a hole in the sphere where sunlight shone through. At night-time the interior was lit by a huge lantern inside an armillary sphere at the very centre.
You could say that this cenotaph was the largest planetarium ever designed, though no planets were represented within it and it was static. Speaking of planetaria, even though Boullée’s design never got off the page it inspired the design of a real modern-day planetarium, the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, part of the American Museum of Natural History. The Hayden Planetarium was built in 2000 and is 27 meters (87 feet) high.
|The Hayden Planetarium|
Even it we cannot say exactly if Sir Isaac Newton would identify himself on the lgbt spectrum, his unbuilt cenotaph has indirect links to modern lgbt astronomers thought the Hayden Planetarium. The Associate Director is Brian Abbott who does talks and presentations there. The planetarium currently has a writer-in-residence, the gay British playwright Stephen Laughton. He is working with Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer, Curator of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, a planet-hunter and discoverer of the first brown dwarf star. They are researching and collaborating in the development of a new play.
Finally, if Boullée had been able to build Newton’s cenotaph it may have been located where the Eiffel Tower is today. Below is an artist’s impression of how it would look if you could visit it.
I’m going to have a few days break for the Easter holidays. I’ll be back on April 10th when we’ll be looking at how a floral headdress inspired Napoleon and the art deco movement.