Newton’s Prank


I’ll bet that if you have a mental image of Isaac Newton at all, it’s a pretty stern one: a guy forced to wear gentlemanly outfits of the late 17th century with that huge powdered wig that seems to be sarcasm, staring out with an expression that says “shut up, you idiot, I already know everything you could possibly say, and it’s all idiotic”, only written like they did back before anyone decided spelling words kind of the same-ish way most of the time. You don’t think of him as having a humorous side at all, or even cracking a smile. At best you’d think his only entertainment was judging other people to be far beneath him, but that’s one of those cases where history is overblowing his reputation. Why, once time, as Member of Parliament representing Cambridge at the Convention Parliament in 1689, which decided King James II had left the throne of England without pointing out how he left because of all those people pointing pointy spears at him, Newton once piped up to say that it was a little drafty and could you please close the window, you insufferable dunce.

But there’s more to him than that. Why, according to this book that got quoted in some other book that I actually read, Newton at least once played a really grand practical joke. And yeah, I know, you can put anything you want in one book, but I read in a totally different book about the same thing happening, without even quoting that first book, so this has got to be legitimate. While a student at the Grantham Grammar School in the 1650s, “he first made lanterns of paper crimpled, which used to go to school by, in winter mornings, with a candle, and tied them to the tails of the kites in a dark night, which at first affrighted the country people by thinking they were comets”, and if all that isn’t remarkable enough consider that my spell-checker has no objection to “affrighted” but doesn’t think “crimpled” is a word.

Apparently, his little stunt of faking a comet was very convincing in making other people think they were seeing comets, which got the folks around Grantham to wonder what calamity the comets were foretelling. I hope they’re not still waiting for the disaster, come to think of it. Probably they’re not; 350 years is a while to wait for the end of the world to be set off by a fake comet hung from a kite, but, get an idea in some people’s minds and it won’t get back out again either. Anyway, his getting people to see portents of doom is a really good response to a practical joke. The most response I ever get from a prank is some resigned sighing and people looking at their watches to see if they’ve acknowledged my existence enough and can now move on. I just bet Newton never had to deal with people rolling their eyes and smacking their lips while waiting for me to finish being amused by myself, but to be fair, he was the one with that whole idea of faking a comet with some kites and some paper crimpled. Also inventing physics. That’s pretty impressive too.

But if Newton was willing to play this one prank, one time, when he was a kid, obviously, he must’ve played a whole bunch of other pranks throughout his life. What other ones might there have been? I guess the obvious things he might have done were to spread rumors about how Wilhelm Leibniz plagiarized his recipe for Apple Moon Pie (“takke your Appells toe a most vy. grt. height above yr Moone Pie, and droppe them on the Moone Pie untill it being the Pie is affrightingly crimpled”), impose a confusing infinitesimals-based notation on calculus, or call Robert Hooke over to set his drinks on Hooke’s head. But I guess it’s more respectable that Newton might have played practical jokes that require some real props and lighting effects and such; think how you’d feel if you learned Newton was fond of Mad Libs or of telling lesser scientists “I got your nose, you pathetic ignoramus”. It takes imagination to make a comet, a lesson taken to heart by Newton’s I-guess-you-can-kind-of-call-him-a-friend Edmond Halley.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

4 thoughts on “Newton’s Prank”

    1. Now that’s a great idea! Can’t you just picture him wearing a sequin-spangled tuxedo, producing pigeons and rabbits with a wave of his wand, and tucking his assistant into a box for the astounding levitation trick?

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