BBC Future

Science/Fiction

Newton’s Laws of Motion Pictures

About the author

Described by the Times as “the world’s most enthusiastic man” and the Daily Mail as someone whose “wit and enthusiasm can enliven the dullest of topics”,  Quentin is a broadcaster, film critic and author best known for presenting the UK's most listened to science programme, The Material World on BBC Radio 4 . It’s “quite the best thing on radio”, according to Bill Bryson. You can find him on Twitter at @materialworld

Sir Isaac Newton

(Copyright: Science Photo Library)

Considered to be one of the greatest and most influential scientists who ever lived, why does Sir Isaac Newton feature so rarely in mainstream fiction?

I’m in a shopping centre in the small town of Grantham the middle of England – perhaps most famous nowadays for being where former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was born and grew up. It’s lunchtime but I ignore the Italian restaurant and go through a door beside it. Suddenly I find myself in a 17th Century apothecary’s shop, where the shelves are filled with strange looking jars containing everything from colophony (a form of pine resin, apparently) to live leeches, and the two assistants are alarmingly eager to know my star sign so they can work out which potions to give me.  

I politely decline their suggestions on the basis that there is precious little evidence of the benefits of zodiac-based treatment. The two assistants are actors taking part in a bit of well-staged make believe. Where I am is not, and never has been, a real apothecary’s shop. That was next door. The place that’s now the Italian eatery.  

Three hundred and fifty years ago this wasn’t just any apothecary’s shop. This was where the ultimate teenage wizard lived and first familiarised himself with the alchemical materials he would devote much of this life to. No, not Harry Potter. For five years it was the lodging of the young Isaac Newton, who despite – or perhaps because of – spending a great deal of his energy on what we would now call alchemy or magic, also found the time to become arguably the greatest scientist who ever lived.

As you might expect there is a commemorative plaque outside the restaurant.   But it only went up there late last month, even though there have long been ones on the site to mark how both political activist Thomas Paine and writer Charles Dickens had much more briefly, and more recently, stayed in a nearby coaching inn. The plaque finally appeared, along with the pop-up apothecary’s shop, as part of Gravity Fields, an imaginative eight-day science and arts festival all inspired by Newton’s life and legacy.   

So why has it taken so long for the town to celebrate a figure of such magnitude? The short answer is, it hasn’t. They already have a shopping centre named after him, and when a statue of Sir Isaac was unveiled back in 1858 assorted dignitaries and leading scientists of the time turned up to watch as Newton’s telescope and prism were paraded round the streets.

Nevertheless, a mall and a knees-up once every 150 years seems a poor return for someone who revolutionised our ideas about optics and gravitation and calculus and much more besides. What, to me, seems even more surprising is that Newton, who supposedly described his life as “like a boy playing on the sea-shore diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell”, hasn’t made much more of a splash in popular culture.

Biggest flop

Given that he’s invariably right up there with Albert Einstein whenever polls are conducted about scientific importance and influence, why does Newton lag so far behind when it comes to appearances in mainstream fiction?  Not only are there multiple films in which Einstein plays a leading role (notably Insignificance and IQ, as well as having some of his facial features “borrowed” to help Yoda look wise in the Star Wars movies), it’s also not too much of a stretch to think of significant big screen appearances by other scientists. They range from partially-based-on-their-lives efforts like the 1936 Oscar-winner The Story of Louis Pasteur and 2009’s Creation about Charles Darwin, to almost completely fictional tales like Christopher Nolan’s 2006 The Prestige with David Bowie as Edison’s great rival Nicolas Tesla, and this year’s hugely enjoyable The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (irritatingly retitled The Pirates! Band of Misfits for the USA and Australia, as I’ve mentioned before) which creates a Darwin very different from the one in Creation.

Where, though, is Sir Isaac among all these reels – and unreals? There are a few fleeting appearances on television, including some usually jokey cameos in manifestations of Star Trek (most memorably a holodeck poker game also featuring Einstein and the real Stephen Hawking), and he does rather better in plays and better still in novels – a favourite is Philip Kerr’s Dark Matter with Newton as detective in a murder mystery.

But from the earliest days of cinema until now the one and only movie I’m aware of to feature Newton and have had any kind of release is 1957’s The Story of Mankind.  It’s most notable for being a film that regularly features in lists of the biggest flops of all time. Even then Newton only appears for around two minutes. And he’s played by an alternately gurning and whistling Harpo Marx.

Fond as I am of the Marx Brothers, the so-called greatest scientist of all time deserves better than just being in one of greatest turkeys of all time. The good news is that there is a Newton film in the works. The not so good news is that it’s from Rob Cohen, director of high adrenaline fodder like The Fast and the Furious and xXx. It’s claimed he wants it to be the start of a new action movie franchise with Sir Isaac as the hero, and based – as is Kerr’s novel – on his stint as warden of the Royal Mint, which makes and distributes UK coins. Given that Newton was already in his mid 50s when he took up the post, it seems likely the facts will be bent by more than Newtonian forces.

Sir Isaac Newton is a magnificent, complex, contradictory figure ripe for some skilled screenwriter to get their teeth into. Not only because there should be more out there than Harpo’s less than reliable portrayal. But also because there must be far more interesting fictions to weave around him than that he discovered gravity after being whacked on the head by an apple.   

If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.