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September 28, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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A bodekin betwixt his eye and bone

Why newton was harder than the average scientist today


You’ve undoubtedly heard of Sir Isaac Newton.

You’ve probably heard the story about how Newton’s theory of gravitation was inspired by a falling apple (which is perhaps a myth, but one Newton propagated himself).

You probably know he was a pretty big deal in mathematics and physics. In mathematics he’s credited with the development of differential and integral calculus (Gottfried Leibniz is also, independently, credited with this development). In physics, Newton’s theory of universal gravitation and three laws of motion were revolutionary.

You might know something about Newton’s work on optics, perhaps that he built the first usable reflecting telescope, or that he developed a theory of colour based on the decomposition of white light, via a prism, into the colours of the visible spectrum.

You might not, however, have heard of what Newton called “an experiment to put pressure on the eye”.

According to, a ‘bodkine’ was a “long, blunt needle used as a hairpin”—something like a “modern butter-knife”. Keep that in mind when you read the following excerpt from Newton’s essay Of Colours (c. 1666):

“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.”

That’s right, Newton took something like a blunt knife, stuck it in his eye-socket, and wiggled it about just to find out what would happen. And he did this more than once—to see if the results (that is, spots in his vision) differed when he did it in a light room from when he did it in a dark room.

Ever since the Vic chemist Dr Pearce told the first year chem lab I was in that gloves in the lab are unnecessary (and even possibly dangerous), reminisced about the days when chemists pipetted by mouth, and demonstrated reactivity in a lecture theatre with a big fireball, I’ve had the feeling that scientists used to be much harder than they are today. Newton’s eye experiment would seem to lend some weight to that theory.

You might think Newton sticking a bodkine into his eye and wiggling it about entailed a certain risk of accidentally popping his eyeball from his socket. Have you ever wondered if this is something that can happen? I have. According to a friend who just recently completed a first aid course for search and rescue, it can happen—and it’s not as uncommon as you might think.

Apparently a hard enough impact to the back of the head, or the right kind of flick from a branch can cause your eyeball to dislodge from its socket and dangle beneath it. Something not to tell your mum when you go tramping (or whatever the outdoor activity it is that the kids do these days) if she worries anything like mine. Unless you happen to be a cruel child. Then perhaps you could tell her that you’re going to replicate Newton’s experiment for uni, and ask her if she’s got a bread-knife you could borrow.

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