Godfrey Kneller’s 1689 portrait of Isaac Newton

By Jindan Chen*

Before going to Rob Iliffe’s talk on The Newton’s Project on February 28th, I skimmed through this incredibly comprehensive website about Isaac Newton. Absolutely, it is an exciting on-line read.

“The Newton Project” is the name of a non-profit organization which builds up this website. The primary goal of this website is to digitize and publish on-line all Newton’s writings from 1642 to 1727. As of today, the outcome of the goal has been over 5.2 million transcribed words online! The project started in 1998 and was housed at Imperial College London. It secured funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Board in UK. It is entirely surprising to find out what a variety of primary sources about Newton this website has put together, which include Newton’s own various notes and letters, scientific or religious, and his friends or rivals’ accounts of him.

It is no doubt that such a website is of enormous research value for historians as it removes the big hassle of reading Newton’s difficult handwritings. The website is just like a vast, handy digital archive. But what gets me really excited about this website is the easy access it provides to the public to get a closer look at the almost symbolic figure of Newton. I would like to assume the design of “Take A Tour” on the home page gives the public a chance to take a quick view of a multi-dimension Newton, a real Newton who they do not get to know before. For example, I was fascinated by the biographical accounts written by Newton’s good friends John Conduitt and William Stukeley, and his Royal Society colleague and competitor John Flamsteed. These texts give me a new perspective to approach Newton as a person less mysterious. In addition, things like Jean-Baptiste Biot’s biography of Newton and Newton’s own letter to John Locke add to a richer understanding of this legendary genius.

In the talk, Rob Iliffe, Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex and the director of the AHRC Newton Papers Project, pointed out some important concerns about this huge digital project after a brief introduction of the website. What got me thinking was the idea of rethinking the change in the meaning of reading which those digital projects brought about. Before, when I looked at the digital archives like this, I was merely captured by the excitement about the convenience of acquiring information the digital world brought to us. I barely questioned further what was being changed as a result of the digitalization of the texts. It was nice to realize that, as Iliffe pointed out, on-line text reading has made reading more of an activity of mapping, navigating, and exploring.

More important was to be aware of the problematic aspects of the digital world. For example, along with this convenience the digital archives create are the problems of whether you trust the transcripts and whether researchers are overloaded by endless information because of the convenient access. What struck me in Iliffe’s talk was his warning about the possible overuse of the new tools. He mentioned a critical reception of the distant reading the digital project shaped. He recommended a balanced combination of a traditional, close reading and an unconventional, distant reading. He held “new tools should be worn lightly to aid more traditional research.” It was nice to have someone to remind you of the potential problems when you get excited about the benefits the new technologies bring to you.

*Jindan Chen is pursuing a Master’s degree in History of Science at Oregon State University

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