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Isaac Newton Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night, God said, Let Newton be, and all was light. Pope’s couplet captures a sense of the wonder and respect Newton inspired in the poets of the following generation. Newton is himself the subject of many poems, and his scientific findings—particularly those on light—influenced many, many more. While the ordering of the natural world into mathematical laws and observable phenomena earned the scorn of later Romantic poets, it is a mark of the Enlightenment that poetry found science its proper object. A Letter of Mr. Isaac Newton . . . Containing His New Theory about Light and Colors Newton’s letter on the principles of light and colour provides intellectual context for the later poetic praise, and it helps re-create a sense of the excitement created by Newton’s discoveries. It requires an effort of imagination—but one that is well worthwhile— to recapture the pious wonder with which readers first greeted Newton’s revelation that even colors obeyed divine laws. Quick Notes • Form: Letter published by the Royal Society. • Style: Clear, scientific method. • Major Concepts: Light refracts into separate rays of color, each color has a corresponding refractability; whiteness is a composite of color; light may be a substance. Newton’s letter illustrates the epistemological revolution of the seventeenth century that allowed for the emergence of modernity. His text follows clear scientific experimental methods based in mathematical precision and verifiable results. Understanding the natural laws of the universe meant that mystery, superstition, and legend gave way to empirical knowledge. It meant that the earth and the universe were knowable. Discussion Questions 1. What is the significance of Newton’s breakdown of color as individually refractable rays of light? 2. Why is his discovery of whiteness as the composite of all color “the most surprising and wonderful”? 3. How would you describe his method of experimentation? 4. How would you describe his style of reporting the experimentation and results? 5. What would it mean for a scientific community to hear the results of Newton’s experiments with light for the first time? 6. How do you account for the popular impact of Newton’s discoveries in optics? 7. What role does light play in poetry (as image, as metaphor, as theme)? Examine Pope’s Essay on Criticism, for example. How might Newton’s discoveries change the role of light in poetry?
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