Newtonian scribblings

Newtonian scribblings

Isaac Newton is famous for many things. Among them should be counted his propensity to scribble, to produce rough workings at volume, as part of his process of thinking things out. A postcard bought at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge recently caught the eye because showing a page from one of Newton’s many notebooks. It is shown here.

A little more investigation led to the website of the Newton Project, at the University of Oxford ( This aims to publish the complete Newtonian corpus and provides information and diplomatic transcriptions of all his published and unpublished work. I was particularly intrigued by reading about his so-called Waste Notebook, which someone had thrown away and he had retrieved and recycled, and the existence of a good few more notebooks as well. The postcard is in fact one page from the Fitzwilliam Notebook in the Cambridge collections and concerns Newton’s pioneering work on the characteristics of a hyperbola, a cone. That the postcard of the page from the Notebook is indeed a scribbling, rough working, is shown by tracking down Newton’s published work on this topic. A number of items about the hyperbola appeared in publication. Among them is this.

It comes from one of the many volumes of The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton and shows the smartened and cleaned up version, with the rough workings aspects removed and a more succinct account provided. But the diagram still has pride of place and clearly there is a discernible relationship between the scribbling version and the published one. Certainly enough traceable aspects of the scribbling remain for it to be identified as a point of origin.

A transcribed version of the Fitzwilliam Notebook appears on the Newton Project webpages. The letters and words in the scribbling and also the print published version appear, but on the Project website the transcription is minus the diagram and also a funny little pointing finger that appears in the scribbling but not the Papers version. Surely the diagram of the hyperbola is crucial, not an optional extra given the aims of the Project? And this isn’t the only example, for the other things I looked at where Newton drew diagrams show that these have not been included either. I find myself quite shocked that Newton’s diagrams do not appear in the diplomatic online Project edition of Newton’s work.

Could it be that the diagram is seen as too rough a rough working to be included, or more simply that it takes too much time, work and cost to include the many diagrams? It is certainly a great pity, for surely understanding Newton’s thought process requires the diagrams? The scribbling is here the better guide.

Click the picture below to flip through Liz’s 30 June News Mag by Liz Stanley

Last updated: 29 June 2017


Recent Posts