In 1665, while the Great Plague was devastating London and Cambridge, the young scholar Isaac Newton decamped to his family’s home in up-country Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth. A lifelong autodidact, Newton enjoyed, while away from his college, one of the most creative and innovative years of his life. During the late summer of 1666, he allegedly observed the now-famous falling apple that led to the development of his theories of the laws of motion. His publications and inventions are generally credited with inspiring the Scientific Revolution.
The Renaissance, ending the intellectual abyss of the Dark Ages and subsequent medievalism, had begun to awaken people’s consciousness. The Reformation (and the printing press) had suggested attractive alternatives to established authority. And then, as if from nowhere, emerged this genius in just about every scientific field, opening doors to amazing possibilities. If you look around the room you’re in, virtually everything you can see is the result of the scientific method of inquiry, testing and at least temporary confirmation. This might include, in your case, the very fact that you can see.
It would be beyond tedious to rehearse the differences in our lives between the invention of the reflecting telescope (Newton) and the deployment of the Hubble; between setting type by hand (which my father and I were both taught to do) and the instant creation of text and layout by computer. And so on, ad infinitum. Even my short life has covered the delightful distance between the Vaseline-coated rectal thermometer and Dr. Hochstrasser’s pedal-operated drill, and digital thermometers that don’t even touch us, and almost-painless dentistry. Few of us oldsters will live to see cures for what currently ails us, but it’s a pretty good bet, given the almost exponential growth of modern science, that our kids will.
I often wonder: Given the paradise to which Christians claim they will attain after death, why aren’t they happier, more optimistic people while still alive? In the same way, it’s curious to me that we beneficiaries of centuries of incredible scientific progress are, in the words of a poet interviewed a couple of years ago on PBS, “still rolling rocks down on each other.”
It would be easy at this point to continue in this vein: to cite the persistent tradition of anti-intellectualism in the United States; mention the strangely effective 1956 sci-fi film “Forbidden Planet,” in which “monsters from the Id” are responsible for the destruction of an entire intelligent species; to follow Isaac Asimov — “... there is a cult of ignorance in the United States and there always has been.” — to list the various books and articles on the subject of American yahooism and quantifiable educational decline. But Isaac Newton lurks in the background of our current situation and ought not to be forgotten.
The persistence of racism in our culture, the shrinking of the white majority population and the recent appearance of glowering armed men in camouflage clothing at public gatherings, in supermarkets and Subway sandwich counters, have been catalysts for a growing, larger, public response. Ostensibly for self-protection and justified by a classically arguable constitutional amendment, these demonstrations are clearly intended to intimidate those of us unwilling to join that dangerous charade. They ignore, however, a law even more basic than that of their rights: Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It may be slow to move, but it is immutable.
Here in Vermont, many a slob hunter who neglects to ask permission to hunt private land, finds his hunting grounds posted. Men who “train” bear hounds during summer when mother bears are already stressed by heat and nursery duties, are headed toward a barricade. Trappers who’ve recently begun to shoot videos of desperate animals about to die — not to mention one who exhibits his dead prey on a post — might surmise from the nature of the opposition that nothing will come of it. Isaac Newton begs to differ.
Something important happened in Minneapolis on May 25: The bone-deep racism and brutal tactics of the police force, long a problem in the Twin Cities, was excruciatingly recorded for all the world to see. The pressure for reform, building for decades, finally became the equal and opposite reaction. “The Uprising,” an article by Luke Mogelson in the June 22 issue of The New Yorker, provides dramatic corroboration.
“A riot,” Dr. King once told Mike Wallace, “is the language of the unheard.” King George III was deaf to it; “Nothing of importance happened today,” he wrote in his journal on July 4, 1776. Louis XVI couldn’t hear his people until it was too late.
One rioter quoted by Mogelson said it beautifully: “Either I’m gonna live my life in fear, or I’m gonna try this one dang thing and see what comes of it.” The people, now newly emboldened and connected, will respond with the same force that oppresses and murders them.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.