Isaac Newton: Was He a Jerk Due to Asperger's?
As children, we're all told the jocular story of Sir Isaac Newton. One warm autumn evening, after a sumptuous repast, the scientist found shade beneath an apple tree in a garden of flowers. Relaxing with a cozy cup of tea, he quietly contemplated the universe. A few minutes into his calm reprieve, an apple plopped down from the branches and bonked him on the head. One would think such a rude awakening to be cause for anger, but instead, it delighted Newton, inspiring him to develop his great theory of gravity!
Except the story didn't exactly happen that way. In fact, Newton likely embellished the anecdote in order to make himself seem nicer.
The inescapable truth is that Isaac Newton wasn't the flower sniffing, rosy individual our elementary teachers portrayed him to be. Cold and calculating, cunning and quick-tempered, he just was not a nice guy. Plain and simple.
In 1995, J. Qureshi summed up Newton's personality in The Fountain Magazine:
"Newton did not marry. He did not, with a single brief exception, form any warm friendships. Though generous enough with his time and money when he had both to spare, he did not give with tenderness - either to relatives or acquaintances. He lived the extraordinarily narrow life of a dedicated auto-didact, hardly ever travelling outside London, Cambridge, Woolsthorpe. He was not given to lightness of manner, nor did he show any capacity for self-irony. When angered, he became unbalanced and, it must be said, vindictive and petty."
-->Though his personality didn't endear him to almost anyone, it served his career remarkably well. Ruthlessness is a surprising bedfellow to scientific success. When two other scientists, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, offered criticism or competed with Newton for claim over the revolutionary ideas of gravity and calculus, Newton pursued personal vendettas against them. These grudges persisted even after Hooke and Leibniz were in their graves, with Newton trashing the reputations and discoveries of both Leibniz and Hooke while elevating his own. As Alasdair Wilkins noted in io9, the reason that everyone knows the name of Newton and not Leibniz or Hooke may simply be because he outlived them.
Newton's merciless nature served him even better outside of science. In the last few years of the 1600s, Newton became Warden, and later Master, of the Royal Mint of England. The positions were notoriously cushy, but in these roles, he tirelessly hunted down coin counterfeiters. As Sam Kean recounted in The Disappearing Spoon:
"A pious Christian, Newton prosecuted the wrongdoings he uncovered with the wrath of the Old Testament God, refusing pleas for clemency. He even had one notorious but slippery 'coiner,' William Chaloner... hanged and publicly disemboweled."
Under Newton's stern tenure, twenty-eight others would visit the hangman's gallows or be burned at the stake for counterfeiting. "At the Mint he could hurt and kill without doing violence to his scrupulous puritan conscience. The blood of the coiners...
nourished him," historian Frank Manuel gorily described.
MIT professor and science historian Thomas Levenson respectfully disagrees with Manuel's melodramatic, macabre assessment, though he willingly acknowledges that Newton was a "good hater."
What was the reason for all the hatred? Newton's upbringing may have been a contributor -- his father died before he was born and his mother abandoned him at the age of three. Yet a new theory gaining traction is that Newton had Asperger's Syndrome. According to the Royal Society's Milo Keynes:
The clinical features of Asperger's syndrome are (i) social impairment shown by poor nonverbal communication, poor empathy and failure to develop friendship, (ii) lack of interest in communication with others, and (iii) an all-absorbing dominant interest and strong adherence to routine.
Newton certainly suffered from all three of these symptoms at one time or another, but Keynes warns against such retrospective analysis. It's far too easy to cherry pick Newton's personality and diagnose him accordingly.
All we'll probably ever be able to say conclusively is that Newton was a bit of a jerk, and probably deserved to have an apple dropped on his head.