Saturday, October 28, 2017

Keynes on Newton--and some ideas for fantasy.

I have just come across a fascinating piece, a lecture on Newton by Keynes, delivered posthumously by Keynes' brother and largely based on Newton's unpublished papers, apparently totaling about a million words. The central thesis is that Newton's "unscientific" work was just as careful and logical as his scientific work, that he approached alchemy and theology in the same way he approached physics and mathematics. In each case he was trying to make sense of the world by the power of his mind.

Which suggests an interesting idea for a fantasy–I don't know if it has been done. Suppose Newton was right in his exotic work as in his invention of modern physics. In one possible version he is still around, having discovered the alchemical secret of eternal life and faked his own death. In another, a modern scholar reads through the whole body of unpublished work, correctly works out the magical secrets that it contains and that he concealed, and makes use of them.

And in a third, alternate history, version, Newton's friends fail to pull him away from Cambridge into the conventional world of parliament, civil service, and society. He spends the second half of his life as he spent the first, produces breakthroughs in the Hermetic sciences as great as in the natural sciences, and history forks.


Cathy Raymond said...

That sounds like a *great* idea for a science fiction novel, David! I'd love to see you run with it.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Greg Keyes' Age of Unreason series.

(I think I read the first book, Newton's Cannon, some time ago. IIRC I didn't like it much.)

Roger said...

There are other great geniuses who wasted their later years pursuing impossible goals.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should read Aaronovich's Rivers of London and its sequels. The first book also has the title Midnight Riot in the U.S. The hero is a London policeman who finds himself recruited into a very special branch of the Metropolitan Police, who use magic and investigate magical crimes (including vampire infestations, and stuff like that). They use what they call Newtonian magic; there are other magic practitioners in the world, but their tradition traces to Isaac Newton's supposed development of magical theory and practice.

Best Regards,
Nicholas D. Rosen

David Friedman said...


I don't think it's the sort of novel I want to write. I am most of the way through the sequel to my _Salamander_, which is finally moving again. I have plans for a third book in that series. I also have the beginning of a sequel to _Harald_ which I might go back to.

Why don't you write it?

David Friedman said...


I took a look at the Kindle free sample of _Rivers of London_. I've never gotten into graphic novels.

Cathy Raymond said...

I have either skill nor ambition to write fiction; my writing interests lie elsewhere. But if the Newtonian magic idea doesn't appeal to you as something to write, so be it.

Quentin Langley said...

Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series mentions your second scenario as back story. It is just a throwaway line in a fantasy series, but it is there.

Karl said...

And the laws he discovered would later be used by Lord Darcy and Master Sean to solve crimes.

David Friedman said...


But the fork there comes much earlier.

Modern Mugwump said...

Without giving away spoilers, something very like your first two scenarios happens toward the end of Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle.

gurugeorge said...

Charles Stross' "Laundry" novels are sort of in a similar vein. Turns out that the Lovecraftian stuff is real, and magic is real, but it's really all about a kind of advanced mathematics and some kind of bizarro coding.

An iPhone cord knotted in a particular way wards off an evil spirit, that type of thing.

Highly recommended, fun books if you don't know of them already.

Xerographica said...

Have you read Adam Smith's book of essays? I was surprised that he wrote a 100 page essay on the history of astronomy. Especially since he is largely responsible for the idea of the division of labor. I think it's possible for labor to be overly divided. Take the handicap principle for example. Nowhere in the Wikipedia entry does it mention the fact that spending money is a costly signal. Smith also shared some enjoyable thoughts on music. Basically the main theme is on how things are ordered.

In the book's intro is this interesting bit...

"The change in his habits which his removal to Edinburgh produced, was not equally favourable to his literary pursuits. The duties of his office, though they required but little exertion of thought, were yet sufficient to waste his spirits and to dissipate his attention; and now that his career is closed, it is impossible to reflect on the time they consumed, without lamenting, that it had not been employed in labours more profitable to the world, and more equal to his mind." - Dugald Stewart, An Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith

Imagine seeing Smith or Newton waiting in a line. You'd think, "Yikes! The opportunity cost is too high!" Or, "Something is really preventing the Invisible Hand from doing its job!"

While I'm here, I hope you don't mind if I share some ideas that I'd appreciate your thoughts on.

1. What if everybody had to do 100 push-ups before they purchased anything? The cost of trade would increase, so the quantity of trade would decrease, and so would the rate of progress. The reverse is true if the earliest native Americans had used horses. Horses would have reduced the cost of allocating resources, trading would have been less costly, the quantity of trade would have increased, and more progress would have been made.

2. Becoming bipedal reduced our ancestors' allocation costs. This increased the frequency of allocation, but it also meant having to more frequently solve allocation problems, which meant greater selection pressure on intelligence. The invention of bags and using other animals to carry things made the allocation problems even harder. Nowadays the allocation problems are even harder still, but good or bad allocation decisions rarely impact our reproduction. Therefore, we've reached peak intelligence.

3. Markets with prices work much better than socialism because prices transmit at least some information about people’s perception of importance. This would mean that the efficiency of allocation depends on the quantity of information about importance. Prices can never be optimal because they almost always fail to transmit all the information about importance. The economic term for the hidden information is of course “consumer surplus”. In theory, pragma-socialism would be the optimal economic system because it would entirely eliminate consumer surplus.