Advent Calendar of Science Stories 9: Newton's Bodkin

I tooke a bodkine gh & put it betwixt my eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye [with the] end of it (soe as to make [the] curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of [the] bodkine, but if I held my eye & [the] bodkin still, though I continued to presse my eye [with] it yet [the] circles would grow faint & often disappeare untill I removed [them] by moving my eye or [the] bodkin.

If [the] experiment were done in a light roome so [that] though my eyes were shut some light would get through their lidds There appeared a greate broade blewish darke circle outmost (as ts), & [within] that another light spot srs whose colour was much like [that] in [the] rest of [the] eye as at k. Within [which] spot appeared still another blew spot r espetially if I pressed my eye hard & [with] a small pointed bodkin. & outmost at vt appeared a verge of light.

-- From the notebooks of Isaac Newton, via the Cambridge University library

Mark Twain famously wrote that "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't." This is why today's story relies on the actual words of its subject, rather than me trying to write a scene in which a young Isaac Newton sticks a knife in his own eye.

The text and image above come from a notebook in which Newton recorded his thoughts and experiments around 1665. He was doing a lot of playing around with optics at the time, and investigating the ways we perceive color. Not one to leave a stone unturned when he could wedge a sharp bit of metal underneath it and lever it over, he investigated the effect of physical distortion of the eye both by pressing on the front of his closed eyeball, and also by working a bodkin up behind his eye, and pressing on the back of it. I'm not sure whether he used himself as a subject because he didn't trust the observations of others, or because he was naturally a solitary and secretive sort. Or, possibly, all his friends fled when he started suggesting sticking sharp objects in uncomfortable places...

Anyway, this story stands as a sort of testament to the crazy shit that scientists have gotten up to over the last umpteen millennia. Newton is far from the only scientist to experiment on himself-- particularly in the early days of the Royal Society, they got up to all sortsof weird stuff. But this continues for quite a while-- Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything has a bunch of these stories, including one chemist who insisted on tasting everything he worked with (possibly Carl Wilhelm Scheele, but I don't have the book here with me).

Like most modern scientists, I don't really this kind of self-experimentation (or the sticking of sharp objects in the eyes of others, for that matter). At the same time, though, this kind of obsessive dedication to figuring things out no matter what is sort of perversely admirable. And while this is frequently presented as a "look at what a weirdo Newton was" tale, it's actually a very human thing to do. Newton sticking a bodkin in his eye comes from the same kind of impulse that leads athletes to play through injuries, or artists to sacrifice personal comfort in pursuit of some particular vision.

So, a tip of the cap (from well out of dagger range) to Isaac Newton and all the other scientists down through the years who have gone past the normal bounds of common sense in pursuit of answers.


(Part of a series promoting Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.)


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A bokin is "a blunt, thick needle with a large eye used especially for drawing tape or cord through a hem" and not a knife!

Bodkin not bokin! ;(

It's a word that just means "pointy metal" thing, I think -- bodkin arrowheads were used to pierce armor, and Hamlet famously refers to a dagger as a "bare bodkin." I think typesetters used an altogether different kind of bodkin for some typesetting job.

Good word, though!