Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

5
Maclaurin and Newton: The Newtonian Style
and the Authority of Mathematics

JUDITH V. GRABINER

Sir Isaac Newton was a mythic figure even in his lifetime, as the well-known lines of Alexander Pope illustrate:

Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night.
GOD said, Let Newton be! and all was Light.

As Newton’s disciple, Colin Maclaurin, who lived from 1698 to 1746, basked in some of that reflected light.1 Arguably the most significant Scottish mathematician and physicist of the eighteenth century, Maclaurin achieved recognition not only in Britain but also on the Continent. Besides his original scientific contributions, he was a Professor of Mathematics at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and then at the University of Edinburgh, a premier expositor of Newtonian science, a winner of two prizes from the Académie des Sciences in Paris, a defender of Newtonian calculus, one of the moving spirits in founding the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, an accomplished ‘improver’ and a champion of natural theology. He moved in key intellectual and social circles of the early Scottish Enlightenment, from the Rankenian Club to the orbit of the Earl of Ilay.2

Maclaurin’s influence has been widely acknowledged, but less is known about the ideas that motivated his work. Collections like the present volume make clear that students of the relationship between science, thought and society no longer treat the content of science as a black box that somehow generates ‘impacts’ on society, nor do they characterise a scientist’s ideas by focusing on the scientist’s rhetoric. In recent work on the history of eighteenth-century science, scholars like Theodore Porter, Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer and Lorraine Daston have grappled with the specifics of scientific work in enough detail to understand that work on its own terms at the same time as they treat it as a social construct and situate it in its cultural context. This is my aim also. In the present chapter, my chief concern is to explore how Colin Maclaurin applied what has come to be called ‘the Newtonian style’ to areas ranging from the actuarial evaluation of annuities to the shape of the earth. Indeed, Maclaurin thought that using this approach could guarantee success in any scientific endeavour. I shall also briefly examine how Maclaurin’s career was promoted by Newton and by other patrons, and how

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