Bacon, Wilkins, Moray, Boyle and Newton

Writing on the popular website gscene, Mark Govier asserts that several famous natural philosophers (whose work gave rise to the formation of the Royal Society) were all gay. This is highly speculative, relying on the recorded close friendships between these scientists and their male companions.

When I looked online for some nuggets of wisdom about Isaac Newton’s love-life, I came across a New Scientist review (Culturelab, 23 Mar 2012) of ‘The Sensorium of God’, Stuart Clark’s novel about Newton. The review casually mentions ‘…the current controversy over Newton’s sexuality…’ in relation to his friendship with a young Swiss mathematician, Nicolas Fatio de Duillier.

This prompted the following outburst from William F Maddock:

“Any reference to the man’s sexuality is completely and utterly irrelevant and nothing more than pandering to left wing extremists, not to mention very possibly slanderous to a hero of the sciences. Bad form. Extremely bad form. Utterly and completely bad form.”

Would it be fair to say that any reference to the personal life of any scientist is completely and utterly irrelevant? Consider the case of Niels Bohr: ‘…it was not luck, rather deep insight, which led him to find in young years his wife, who, as we all know, had such a decisive role in making his whole scientific and personal activity possible and harmonious…’

(Richard Courant, quoted in ‘Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom’, Aaserud & Heilbron, OUP 2013)

Scientists do not exist in a vacuum; they inhabit a real world filled with influences political, personal and cultural. The presence (or otherwise) of fulfilling personal relationships in Newton’s life may have shaped his approach to scientific problems and enabled him to make some of the legendary contributions to mathematics and physics. We should not be afraid to speculate about the love lives of famous thinkers – to those people who claim that scientists should be remembered for what they achieved, not who they are, I reply: you may as well dismiss the person’s identity completely, and insist on having all research papers published anonymously.


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