Sir Isaac Newton: “I Can Calculate the Motions of the Planets, but I Cannot Calculate the Madness of Men”

Isaac Newton, the most incisive mind in the history of science, reportedly uttered that sentiment about human nature. Why would he infer such negativity about his fellow humans? Newton’s scientific greatness stemmed from his ability to see well beyond human horizons. His brilliance was amply demonstrated in his great book, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in which he logically constructed his “system of the world,” using mathematics. The book’s title translates from Latin as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, often shortened to “the Principia” for convenience.

The Principia is the greatest scientific book ever published. Its enduring fame reflects Newton’s ground-breaking application of mathematics, including aspects of his then-fledgling calculus, to the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of explaining motion physics. An overwhelming challenge for the best mathematicians and “natural philosophers” (scientists) in the year 1684 was to demonstrate mathematically that the planets in our solar system should revolve around the sun in elliptically shaped orbits as opposed to circles or some other geometric path. The fact that they do move in elliptical paths was carefully observed by Johann Kepler and noted in his 1609 masterwork, Astronomia Nova.

In 1687, Newton’s Principia was published after three intense years of effort by the young, relatively unknown Cambridge professor of mathematics. Using mathematics and his revolutionary new concept of universal gravitation, Newton provided precise justification of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in the Principia. In the process, he revolutionized motion physics and our understanding of how and why bodies of mass, big and small (planets, cannonballs, etc.), move the way they do. Newton did, indeed, as he stated, show us in the Principia how to calculate the motion of heavenly bodies.

In his personal relationships, Newton found dealing with people and human nature to be even more challenging than the formidable problems of motion physics. As one might suspect, Newton did not easily tolerate fools and pretenders in the fields of science and mathematics – “little smatterers in mathematicks,” he called them. Nor did he tolerate much of basic human nature and its shortcomings.

 In the Year 1720, Newton Came Face-to-Face with
His Own Human Vulnerability… in the “Stock Market!”

 In 1720, Newton’s own human fallibility was clearly laid bare as he invested foolishly and lost a small fortune in one of investing’s all-time market collapses. Within our own recent history, we have had suffered through the stock market crash of 1929 and the housing market bubble of 2008/2009. In these more recent “adventures,” society and government had allowed human nature and its greed propensity to over-inflate Wall Street to a ridiculous extent, so much so that a collapse was quite inevitable to any sensible person…and still it continued.

Have you ever heard of the great South Sea Bubble in England? Investing in the South Sea Trading Company – a government sponsored banking endeavor out of London – became a favorite past-time of influential Londoners in the early eighteenth century. Can you guess who found himself caught-up in the glitter of potential investment returns only to end up losing a very large sum? Yes, Isaac Newton was that individual along with thousands of others.

It was this experience that occasioned the remark about his own inability to calculate the madness of men (including himself)!

Indeed, he should have known better than to re-enter the government sponsored South Sea enterprise after initially making a tidy profit from an earlier investment in the stock. As can be seen from the graph below, Newton re-invested (with a lot!) in the South Sea offering for the second time as the bubble neared its peak and just prior to its complete collapse. Newton lost 20,000 English pounds (three million dollars in today’s valuations) when the bubble suddenly burst.

Clearly, Newton’s comment, which is the theme of this post, reflects his view that human nature is vulnerable to fits of emotion (like greed, envy, ambition) which in turn provoke foolish, illogical behaviors. When Newton looked in the mirror after his ill-advised financial misadventure, he saw staring back at him the very madness of men which he then proceeded to rail against! Knowing Newton through the many accounts of his life that I have studied, I can well imagine that his financial fiasco must have been a very tough pill for him to swallow. Many are the times in his life that Newton “railed” to vent his anger against something or someone; his comment concerning the “madness of men” is typical of his outbursts. Certainly, he could disapprove of his fellow man for fueling such an obvious investment bubble. In the end, and most painful for him, was his realization that he paid a stiff price for foolishly ignoring the bloody obvious. For anyone who has risked and lost on the market of Wall Street, the mix of feelings is well understood. Even the great Newton had his human vulnerabilities – in spades, and greed was one of them. One might suspect that Newton, the absorbed scientist, was merely naïve when it came to money matters.

That would be a very erroneous assumption. Sir Isaac Newton held the top-level government position of Master of the Mint in England, during those later years of his scientific retirement – in charge of the entire coinage of the realm!


For more on Isaac Newton and the birth of the Principia click on the link: