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A Visual Tribute to Isaac Newton’s 'Principia'

From classic portraits to pop culture riffs.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 5 2015, 10:52pm

On this day in 1687, Isaac Newton published his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica—commonly known as the Principia.

Within its pages, the eccentric British genius laid out his laws of motion and his theories regarding universal gravitation, which cemented his legacy as the foundational figure in modern physics, astronomy, and mathematics. Unlike some of his influences (such as Johannes Kepler), Newton's work was widely embraced and admired within his own lifetime, and he lived to see it inspire the next great leaps in scientific inquiry.

Indeed, according to mathematician Alexis Claude Clairaut, who was Newton's contemporary, the Principia "marked the epoch of a great revolution in physics."

"The method followed by its illustrious author Sir Newton," wrote Clairaut, "spread the light of mathematics on a science which up to then had remained in the darkness of conjectures and hypotheses."

Centuries later, the publication of the Principia is still considered a keystone moment in science history, and if anything, it is regarded with even more reverence in retrospect. Not only do modern scientists continue to use it as a major touchstone for research, but artists across the centuries have been inspired by the stark brilliance of Newton's conclusions.

To celebrate the anniversary, check out some of the diverse art pieces we've assembled below, inspired by the Newtonian scientific revolution. From classic portraits to pop culture riffs, they demonstrate that Newton's legacy extends far beyond the scientific community.

Portrait of Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller

The artist Sir Godfrey Kneller painted this portrait of Newton in 1689, just a few years after the Principia's publication. Though there are many other portraits of Newton available, this tends to be the public favorite, perhaps because it hints at Newton's famously unkempt appearance.

It's not as if Newton looks particularly disheveled here, but compared to other neater, more traditional portraits—including this 1702 piece, also by Kneller—the above piece captures some of Newton's ever-nascent social wildness.

"Newton" by William Blake

This spectacular surrealist monotype by William Blake, simply entitled "Newton" is perhaps the most familiar depiction of the great thinker. Blake worked on the piece from 1795 to 1805, and though the final result may seem to be aggrandizing Newton, Blake was actually intending to show what he considered to be science's philosophical shortcomings.

"In [Blake's] view, Newton and the empiricist philosophers Francis Bacon and John Locke all conspired 'to unweave the rainbow,'" explained astrophysicist Mario Livio in a recent blog post.

"You'll notice that [...] the scroll on which Newton draws his diagrams appears to emanate from Newton's mouth," continued Livio. "Newton himself is so absorbed in his diagrams that he seems to be blind to the beautifully complex rock behind him, which probably symbolizes the creative, artistic world."

Despite the fact the Blake was trying to critique Newton in this piece—to show, in his words, that "art is the tree of life" and "science is the tree of death"—the portrait ironically ended up inspiring one of the most tributes to Newton in the world. The sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi unveiled a large bronze sculpture based on Blake's portrait in 1995, which dominates the plaza in front of the British Library to this day.

Paolozzi's sculpture of Newton

In addition to Newton himself getting the portrait treatment, his most memorable quotes have also been rendered in artistic form. Take this modern twist by digital artist Roberlan on his famous statement that if he had seen farther, it was by "standing on the shoulders of giants."

Used with the permission of the artist, Roberlan

Newton's Principia has also inspired a lot of video artwork, including this animation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Newton's Three Laws of Motion, animated. Credit: MIT/YouTube/Pell Osborn

Newton has also been referenced in a wide variety of popular culture mediums, from Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia to the RPG game Mass Effect 2, in which he is declared "the deadliest son of a bitch in space."

Mass Effect 2's take on Newtonian physics. Credit: Bioware/YouTube/DarkArchAngelX

But perhaps no artistic rendering of Newton could cement his status as an enduring figure across scientific and pop culture spheres more powerfully than this My Little Pony treatment of him by artist Achernara.

"Isaac Newton pony" by Achenara

While it doesn't have the simple grace of Kneller's portrait or the biting commentary of Blake's monotype, it does show that Newton and his Principia have pervaded modern culture so thoroughly that even the My Little Pony fan community can't ignore him (tellingly, Gottfried Leibniz—one of Newton's biggest rivals—didn't merit a pony portrait).

In other words, Newton has earned an interesting afterlife not just as a science visionary, but as an artistic touchstone that is continually revived in new ways. Having stood on the shoulders of giants, now he is very securely among them.

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