- Reading Popular Newtonianism: Print, the Principia, and the Dissemination of Newtonian Science by Laura Miller
University of Virginia Press, 2018. 248pp. US$45. ISBN 978-081394125.
Laura Miller makes an important contribution to a number of critical fields: the history of science, print and book history, and literary and cultural studies. At its most basic, Reading Popular Newtonianism is a study of eighteenth-century print culture and the ways in which it helped to shape the legacy of the famed scientist and mathematician Isaac Newton through a particular focus on the Principia (1687). However, this book does far more than simply trace Newton’s reputation and afterlife. In a well-organized series of five chapters (proceeding chronologically from Newton’s own lifetime to nearly a century afterward), Miller conducts a painstaking study of numerous material artifacts, including many copies of the Principia, and various editions of works inspired by Newton’s ideas and writings, including poetry (chapter 3), popularizing treatises (chapter 4), and encyclopedias (chapter 5). The final three chapters are especially attractive to literary scholars, as the focus shifts to the more creative contexts in which Newton’s ideas were circulated.
One of the greatest strengths of this book lies in Miller’s attention to the affordances of the print medium. Chapters 1 and 2 cover similar ground, with the former focusing on Newton’s self-fashioning as an elitist, elusive authority figure, and the latter focusing on the print decisions made in regard to the Principia that were inspired by such an image of self. Chapter 2 in particular, in its study of the visual elements of the Principia in comparison to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, highlights the kinds of subtle differences that printed elements such as typography, coloration, font, and other spatial details can make in our interpretation of a text’s authority and authorship (50–51). Likewise, the attention Miller pays to the different characteristics and publishing circumstances of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (a major scientific publication of the period) and Newton’s Principia bring fresh interpretation to the Royal Society’s attempted self-presentation as an absolute authority in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Poetry is the subject of chapter 3, and here we see the distinctive ways in which Newton’s legacy and Newtonian ideas are circulated outside of the actual content of the Principia. The chapter focuses primarily on two poems: the dedicatory ode by Edmond Halley, included with the original publication of the Principia, and James Thomson’s “A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton” (1728), which was published with The Seasons. Miller argues that “the poems’ discussions of authorship show that gender—specifically the framing of male authorship—was an [End Page 366] important component of the transmission of Newton through poetry” (72). Presenting a thorough portrait of Newton’s poetic legacy, she also includes later poetry that takes a different gendered approach, including Louis Davy de la Fautrière’s “Épître Newtonienne,” which is arguably quite sensual and includes a more sympathetic narrator who functions as a link between Newton and the reader (96). In this section, Miller is usefully building on previous work by Courtney Weiss Smith in Empiricist Devotions (2016).
Chapter 4 is a rare study of Francesco Algarotti’s iconic Newtonian work for women: Il Newtonianism per le dame. Miller traces multiple editions of Newtonianism for Ladies (including Elizabeth Carter’s original 1739 translation and the several adaptations/pirated editions that followed), along with some of Algarotti’s other writings that combine fashionable and scientific content (104). She creates a nuanced portrait of the impact such a text had—especially given its rhetorical shift away from femininity in later editions—and the extent to which both Algarotti and his translators envisioned conveying scientific content to a lay audience. This, too, was a sensual text, in certain editions, and its existence complicates what we may think about the dissemination of scientific content to lay readers, a population that included but was not exclusively made up of women.