Rachel Huddart takes a call from one of history’s most famous scientists.
Visitors to the British Library will have probably seen the statue of Isaac Newton crouched over the piazza. Newton has been part of the Library since we opened in St Pancras in 1997 but has always stayed pretty quiet, until now.
As part of the ‘Talking Statues’ project which is running in London and Manchester, Newton has finally been given a voice by the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker and the actor Simon Russell Beale. Anyone with a smartphone can scan the plaque on Newton’s plinth and receive a phone call from the great man himself, who talks about his early life, his scientific and mathematical discoveries and his work as Master of the Royal Mint.
Newton’s statue in the British Library piazza (Copyright: Rachel Huddart)
Within the Library’s collections, there are several documents from Newton’s adult life. Amongst his scientific papers, there are early editions of his famous book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, where Newton described his laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation, as well as the less well-known but impressively titled volume: A New and most Accurate Theory of the Moon's Motion; whereby All her Irregularities may be solved. The British Library’s collection also contains Arithmetica Universalis, which is based on Newton’s lecture notes from his time as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and his book The Method of Fluxions, which details Newton’s work in the development of calculus. As Newton himself points out, we still use his discoveries every day; from satellites orbiting the Earth (using his law of universal gravitation), to the smartphone you use to hear his statue speak (which relies on calculus).
Title page of The Method of Fluxions (Copyright: British Library Board)
When I started work at the Library, Newton’s statue struck me as a strange way to honour one of our greatest scientists. He doesn’t stand proudly over the piazza, gazing out at the visitors, but is bent over his compass, seemingly oblivious to everything around him. There isn’t even any sign of the famous apple. Surprisingly, the sculptor who created the statue, Eduardo Paolozzi, used a picture that criticises Newton as his inspiration. William Blake’s study of Newton, which is on display in Tate Britain, shows Newton sitting on a rock, absorbed in his work and ignorant of the colour and beauty on the rock that he sits on. The print is believed to show Blake’s disdain for Newton’s scientific thinking at the expense of nature and creativity. Paolozzi saw the work as a connection between the arts and science and between two great historical figures, despite their differences.
At the moment, Newton is the only statue at the British Library to be given a voice but it won’t be too long before he is joined by the statue of William Shakespeare which stands in the entrance hall of the Library. Talking Statues are running a competition to give members of the public the chance to write the script for Shakespeare and three other statues involved in the project. The winning monologues will be recorded by a famous actor and Shakespeare will be chatting to the public before Christmas.