Newton Was a Scientist-but is Hollywood Brave Enough to Show That?

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

With the announcement of an Isaac Newton action/adventure film, Hollywood’s tradition of misrepresenting scientists has now become as fixed as a Newtonian Law

When you picture the one of the greatest scientists and ‘father of physics’ Sir Isaac Newton, what do you see? Probably an elderly man, sitting beneath a tree, rubbing his recently bombarded, ridiculous wig? Well, Hollywood apparently sees something quite different. Following the announcement yesterday, Warner Brothers will soon begin work on their latest historical adventure-thriller: “Principia”, which will centre on a young Isaac Newton’s hunt for a mysterious criminal in 17th century England. Cue dramatic shots of Newton foiling his nemesis using only the force of gravity (and a suspended piano), all after quipping to his soon-to-be fallen foe, “STOP! In the name of the first law!”



On Science Cinema

Sadly, this misrepresentation of scientists in cinema is nothing new. If you were placed in a lab and tasked with creating a system and industry the polar opposite to scientific practice, you’d probably invent Hollywood: a fast, disorderly beast that doesn’t have a care for accuracy or knowledge, only entertainment. The world of show business has never had any room for the slow-paced, constantly self-analysing and reasoning world of science. Perhaps in spite, scientists in film are usually regulated to the cackling villain, determined for world domination or destruction, depending on the budget (Dr. Strangelove or Austin Powers’ Dr Evil). Even when portrayed favourably, scientists are either shown as society-estranged defenders of justice (Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes) or, as in biopics, distorted to misunderstood, socially awkward recluses, inexplicably played by distractingly handsome actors (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything).

Are these really our only options? Don’t scientist’s contributions to our society and knowledge merit something more accurate? When will the day come when we see a scientist shown to be part of society, not ostracized from it? While Hollywood is, for now, choosing to show the ‘defender of justice’ Newton, it could have very easily chosen another Oscar-bait drama on the subject of his arrogant genius and religious faith because, sadly, Newton’s personality was just as haughty and self-aggrandising as the film industry would want it.


The Aggravation Game

Newton had a turbulent childhood, following his mother’s abandonment of him to be with his stepfather. He grew into a peevish and sullen man who regularly fought with his family, as evidenced by his confessions, written when 19, which include: “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them”, “Punching my sister”, and even “Making pies on Sunday night”. Following his education at Cambridge and the development of his first ideas, Newton’s personality made little social improvement. With his mother on her deathbed, he imposed himself under exile and returned home to Woolsthorpe to become absorbed in alchemy, a secretive study of the nature of life and the search for a formula for gold. In later academic life, he regularly quarrelled with contemporary philosophers, and made life-long enemies of both German polymath Gottfried Leibniz and microscope inventor Robert Hooke, regarding him as “a man of strange and unsociable temper”. Towards the end of his life, Newton became increasingly eccentric (possibly due to alchemy related mercury poisoning) and became obsessed with writing papers on both the Philosopher’s Stone and predicting the end of the world – it’ll be in 2060, if you’re curious.

Of course, including some of these gruff and troublesome ‘no-nonsense’ traits into the planned mystery-thriller would just be playing into the hands of such unscrupulous executives – just picture Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in a Georgian wig, and you’re probably close to our future cinematic Father of physics. And that’s just the problem. Hollywood has only ever been interested in scientists’ personality faults, never their actual science. I mean, did anyone actually learn any mathematics from The Imitation Game?


Will The Real Isaac Newton Please Stand Up

Isaac Newton revolutionised several disciplines in his life: in mathematics, with his invention of calculus, in astronomy, with his invention of the reflecting telescope, and in astrophysics, with his theories of planetary orbits. Of course, it’s this last accomplishment that Newton will forever be remembered for. The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica took Newton two years to write, and twenty years of planning. It outlined his own theory of calculus, the three laws of motion and the first vivid account of a theory of universal gravitation. Humanity’s understanding of the universe was never the same again. Even outside of academic life, Newton continued to influence the society of the time. When appointed as Master of the Mint in 1700, he oversaw a radical overhaul of the country’s finances, to ensure a reduction in forgery – which was all too easy under the present system. He even had a brief stint in politics, representing Cambridge University to oppose its re-Catholicising by James II. Although, he had little interest in political life and only appears on record to ask for a window to be closed.

But what does any of this matter, when we could ‘learn’ about how Newton chased down and knocked out murderers and villains using only his trusty apple?

Isaac Newton was many things, but an adventurer wasn’t one of them. If Hollywood wishes to keep using scientists as their heroes, they should know something: scientists aren’t superheroes. Scientists are people! Just ordinary, tax-paying, rainy day-complaining, Bakeoff-discussing people of modern society. They just happen to be a bit more inquisitive than your average accountant. Will our media ever reflect this? For now, the idea seems too frightening. The average, relatable hero of the story works in a lab? Don’t be ridiculous! Normal people don’t have that kind of job. Best stick to the rooftop-leaping crime fighters.