Sir Isaac Newton by Amie Bolissian-McRae #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

Something for the weekend?

Today’s castaway is the renowned seventeenth century English natural philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and iconic self-isolationist, Sir Isaac Newton. Reportedly a deeply strange man, but inspired thinker, Newton was the very first European ‘scientist’ to receive a knighthood.


Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). This a copy of a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1689). (Wikimedia)


Moving straight on to his eight desert island music tracks, the first choice is…

1. Maggie’s Farm – Performed and written by Bob Dylan
‘I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more…
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane’

Newton was from Lincolnshire farming stock and, in his mid-teens, his mother tried to encourage him to follow in his late father’s muddy footsteps. He profoundly hated farming, but luckily his schoolmaster managed to persuade his mother to let him return to his studies – which worked out well for Newton and Science.

2. I am a rock, I am an Island – performed by Simon & Garfunkel, written by Paul Simon
‘I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock, I am an island’

Newton’s undergraduate years at Trinity College, Cambridge, were very isolated, and he seems to have made few friends – unless you count his manuscripts and notebooks (which, as historians, we do). By all accounts, he did not have the happiest of childhoods. His father died before he was born and his mother remarried when he was three, leaving him with his grandparents – whom he rarely mentioned in his writings. It has been suggested that these difficult early relationships may have explained Newton’s solitary tendencies, his lack of trust, failure to marry, and unflagging capacity to take umbrage.

3. It Was A Very Good Year – performed by Frank Sinatra, written by Ervin Drake
‘When I was twenty-one
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls’

This third track perfectly depicts Newton’s famous ‘annus mirabilis’ (miraculous year) from 1665 when, during a period away from University because of the plague epidemic, he supposedly laid the foundations for his greatest discoveries. Apart from the fact that it was two years not one, he was 22 not 21, he was in no way isolated for all of it, and he appeared to have had no interest in girls at all. But, otherwise, this song nails it.

4. Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree – Performed by Andrew Sisters, written by Lew Brown, Charles Tobias, Sam H. Stept

There is no evidence that a percussive encounter between a falling apple and Isaac Newton’s head inspired his gravitational theory, but later accounts from close contemporaries do confirm the story that apples falling from a tree in his mother’s garden encouraged some of his thinking on the subject – which we’re happy about because this video of the Andrew Sisters is superb.

5. I Will Derive! – Viral hit parody of ‘I Will Survive’ by MindofMathew, originally performed by Gloria Gaynor and written by Freddie Perrin, Dino Fekaris
‘So I thought back
To Calculus…
way back to Newton and to Liebniz
And to problems just like this…’

Newton was the first to invent and develop calculus – according to Newton. He was embroiled in a long dispute with German mathematician Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz about this claim. Leibniz published his own independently-devised theories before Newton, but Newton’s unpublished notes seem to have preceded Leibniz’s work. Leibniz, however, provided the name ‘calculus’, and produced a far more intuitive notation form, subsequently adopted by the whole of European mathematics. Which is why Newton would love this song, as his name comes first.

6. Defying Gravity, performed by Idina Menzel – written by Stephen Schwartz

Difficult to imagine that musical theatre would have been Isaac Newton’s thing, as anti-social as he was. Also, unlike some in this era, he was convinced that there was no such thing as witches or demons of any kind. He thought anyone thinking themselves a witch was merely deluded. On top of that, Defying Gravity for a physical mass like a human, even a magical one, is almost exactly what Newton’s universal gravitational theory in Principia Mathematica disproved. So this song is mainly useful for making Newton cross, which by all accounts could be very entertaining.

7. Money – performed by Pink Floyd, written by Roger Waters
‘Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re okay’

This song has to feature among Newton’s eight discs for three solid reasons. Firstly, Newton was appointed as warden, and then master, of The Royal Mint in London overseeing a massive project of recoinage and the apprehending of thieving coin clippers. Secondly, this track was on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, and Newton was at times obsessed with the moon, developing much of his gravitational calculations in relation to this celestial body. Thirdly, the album cover famously pictured a beam of light refracted into a rainbow by a prism, pleasingly evoking Newton’s works in optics and colours through experimentation with prisms. Three for three.

8. High Society Calypso – performed by Louis Armstrong, written Cole Porter

After the death of The Royal Society’s volatile president Robert Hooke, with whom he had had a rancorous relationship, Newton was able to get more involved in this London-based institution for promoting empirical thinking and exploration in what we now call the sciences. Newton was elected president in 1703 and revived the society’s standing and coffers. He was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705, and remained president of the Society till his death in 1727.



Sir Isaac has his eight discs now, and will receive, like all our castaways, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Bible – which he would appreciate being a keen theologian. A choice of book is tricky, as his library was enormous, but his ongoing fascination with biblical scholarship and hermeneutics suggests maybe an anthology of the earliest versions of the bible in their original languages. His additional luxury item simply has to be a laboratory for exploring alchemy as this was an all-consuming passion for Newton. It is likely he suffered mercury poisoning for periods of his life, due to his alchemical experiments, but someone who could create gold out of base metal would definitely be a handy person running a nation’s Mint.

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