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Newton's Hooke (2004)
David Pinner

A play about Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke which presents "the dark side" of Newton. Emphasis is put on his egotism (not only does he think that he is incomparably brilliant, but he also seems to think that he is somehow divine as evidenced by his birthdate coinciding with Christmas), and his cruelty (both to those with whom he is intimate and to his professional "enemies").

The author does a good job of presenting without bias the difficult question of whether Newton deserves all of the credit he receives for the invention of calculus and laying the foundations of physics. At times during the play, one is convinced that Newton is nothing more than a jerk who took credit for all of the good ideas of the people around him, while at other times it seems instead that the others are just jealous of his genius and are unwilling to admit how much more he can do than they can.

In the play, Newton is presented as a repressed homosexual. I do not know what historical evidence there is to support this thesis one way or another, but it is presented believably. We see Isaac becoming emotionally intimate with two young men who are mesmerized by his brilliance, but both eventually leave him disappointed by his cruelty to them and his inability to come to grips with who he is.

Robert Hooke, on the other hand, is not presented as repressed but rather as a man who is so obsessed with sex that he keeps a diary explicitly describing his sexual encounters with his young niece. (Apparently, according to the preface to the play at least, this is true and we have the diaries to prove it.)

I would have said that the play was written amateurishly, since much of the dialogue struck me as forced. However, it appears that Pinner is a professional, with many years of experience in the theater and even claims to be the author of a new musical about Marx and Engels called Marx and Sparks. (He's kidding, right?) I found the play interesting to read because I learned a bit about what Newton was like, or at least, what he might have been like. Still, it was not quite to my tastes and so I cannot say that I think it was a brilliant work of art. Perhaps others who have read it (or even better, seen it performed!) could write in with their own opinions? (Please use the link below near the "ratings" to enter your own ratings and post your own comments.)

This play appears in a book with Carl Djerassi's Calculus.

Note that the novel Quicksilver also addresses the historical relationship between Newton, Hooke and Leibniz.

Contributed by Nathaniel Grossman

I stumbled onto your Mathematical Fiction web site while looking for items mentioned in Stephen Abbott's article in the MAA Focus. I teach History of Mathematics every now and then---in fact it's been History of Calculus since Edwards' book came out. I find that students are interested in the personalities of Newton and Leibniz, and I talk about them. (I usually bring in Fig Newtons and Bahlsen Leibniz cookies for the students to nibble at that time.)

Your notes on David Penner's play "Newton's Hooke" bring up those two and Hooke, a trio of touchy men. A couple of decades ago I read our library's copy of Robert Hooke's diary and found it quite a fascinating book. (By the time I had enough money to buy a copy, it was out of print.) A large number of scientists and other notables make their appearances and there is an appendix listing more than two hundred London coffeehouses that Hooke mentions. As you note, the diary does record his occasional sexual encounters, usually with his servant girl and later with his niece, who lived with him to keep his household, as well as occasionally with other women. The whole diary was in cipher, and the marks for the sexual encounters resisted decoding until long after the rest was broken. It was long conjectured that the marks for sex might have been alchemical symbols. I don't consider that Hooke was any more sex-obsessed than most men, then and now. Think, for example of Samuel Pepys, whose diaries contain many descriptions of sexual encounters and many more recountings of his lusts and attempts to "score" with one or another woman. Pepys even wrote many of those in ciphered Latin, perhaps in fear lest his uneducated wife might crack the ciphered English of his diaries. James Boswell, who loved his wife, had no less then nineteen documented bouts of venereal disease during the comparatively short time he lived in London. Although no authentic portrait of Hooke survives, he is known from many sources to have been "ill favoured," and is unlikely to have been pursued by groupies. (However, John Wilkes, a politician and acquaintance of Samuel Johnson, who was notoriously ugly, but who liked to place---and win---bets that he could drift over to a beauty at a party and go home with her.) Hence, Hooke's special indication when he does succeed. I remember that one of Hooke's entries mentions in passing that two sheets of paper upon which some milk had been spilled were stck together when it dried. Hooke records his intention to investigate this phenomenon at a later time. If he had he could have invented Elmer's Glue more than three hundred years earlier than Borden.

I have never seen any evidence that Newton was a repressed homosexual. English public schools, as well as Cambridge and Oxford, then as now, were notable for unrepressed homosexuality. Perhaps a writer has tried psychoanalysis-at-a-distance (in space-time), always risky. I have read that in fact Newton was very prudish, cutting off for life a man who had made a risque remark in Newton's presence. That doesn't rule out the possibility of students getting a crush on Newton, but he certainly was not the type to encourage them or even to form a casual relationship with them. (Certainly not a causal relationship!)

Because David Pinner is English---or at least has his stage work put on in England, his English audiences will recognize the word play in his title "Marks and Sparks," which is the hypocoristic name used by everyone there for the department store chain Marks & Spencer.

Note: Another play about Newton and Hooke is "Isaac's Eye" by Lucas Hath. However, aside from one reference to "a type of mathematics that deals with infinite stuff", there is no math in it. (This is perhaps surprising since Hnath claims to be the son of a mathematician.) Consequently, I am not giving "Isaac's Eye" its own entry in this database. Let me briefly mention here that this play is interesting in that it uses modern language for dialogue a blackboard for writing footnotes during the performance. However, Hooke's claim in the play that Newton's calculus was already invented by someone else is anachronistic since the play supposedly takes place as Newton was applying to the Royal Society, but Leibniz's work on the calculus was not published until a decade after he was admitted.

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Works Similar to Newton's Hooke
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Leap by Lauren Gunderson
  2. Calculus (Newton's Whores) by Carl Djerassi
  3. Quicksilver: The Baroque Cycle Volume 1 by Neal Stephenson
  4. Verrechnet by Carl Djerassi / Isabella Gregor
  5. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  6. Let Newton Be! by Craig Baxter
  7. Le Cas de Sophie K. by Jean-Frangois Peyret (playwright and director)
  8. Partition by Ira Hauptman
  9. Shooting the Sun by Max Byrd
  10. The Three Body Problem by Catherine Shaw
Ratings for Newton's Hooke:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
2/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifGenius, Anti-social Mathematicians, Real Mathematicians, Romance, Religion, Isaac Newton,
TopicAnalysis/Calculus/Differential, Mathematical Physics,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)