Sir Isaac Newton PRS (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726/27) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author (described in his own day as a “natural philosopher”) who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution.
One of Newton’s employees took note of the physicist’s habits in the 1680s, observing that Newton rarely went to bed before 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, and sometimes not until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.—and yet, “In a Morning he seem’d to be as much refresh’d with his few hours Sleep, as though he had taken a whole Night’s Rest.” During the day, Newton was never seen taking a walk or engaging in other recreation, and his assistant could recall hearing Newton laugh only once. Food was also a dispensable luxury; Newton dined sparingly and often forgot to eat at all. If reminded that he had failed to touch a meal set on the table for him, Newton would reply “Have I?” and absentmindedly take a few bites before plunging back into his work.
Newton dog-eared pages in a very specific way.
The common way to dog-ear a page is to fold a corner of the page down or up (depending on whether you’re folding the upper or lower corner of that page). Newton took it one step further. He made sure the tip of the dog-ear pointed exactly to the pertinent part of the text. “A sentence, phrase, or even a single word,” writes Baker.
Newton took extensive notes in the book itself.
His marginalia is extensive. There’s so much of it, “marginalia” almost ceases to be an accurate word for it. His notes are copious, often occupying the entirety of a page’s white space.
Newton was exceptionally organized as a note taker.
In addition to taking up most of the margins with notes, Newton created handwritten indexes and contents lists. The indexes look like present-day indexes: They are alphabetical, by topic. They list page numbers directly after each topical listing. You can surmise how marvelously these indexes complemented his dog-earing habit.
Newton wasn’t afraid to damage the books.
It’s a basic point, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Books are property. Sometimes they are valuable property. Newton’s physical use of them “clearly reflects Newton’s attitude that books are working tools to be used as convenient and to destruction,” notes Baker.
Mind you, Baker doesn’t want any visitors to the Royal Society library getting the wrong idea. Dog-earing, he notes, is a “habit of historical interest when found in the former possessions of a genius, but present-day culprits will not be treated quite so understandingly,” he writes. “The Librarian Death Stare is an actual thing, you know.”
Newton’s habit of note-taking began at a young age. He shared Benjamin Franklin’s belief that recording one’s poor behavior could lead to self-improvement. Among his early entries is a list of 49 sins that he admittedly committed before “Whitsunday.” His list reveals a deeply pious man who struggled to reconcile his irascible nature with a commitment to obedience before God. Some of his confessions included:
- Using the word (God) openly
- Eating an apple at Thy house
- Making a feather while on Thy day
- Denying that I made it
- Making a mousetrap on Thy day
- Contriving of the chimes on Thy day
- Squirting water on Thy day
- Making pies on Sunday night
- Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day
- Putting a pin in Iohn Keys hat on Thy day to pick him