Isaac Newton, His Eye, and His Bodkin


Adventures in Physics!

bodkin (noun):

1. a) a dagger or stiletto

   b) a sharp, slender instrument for making holes in cloth

   c) an ornamental hairpin shaped like a stiletto

2. a blunt needle with a large eye for drawing tape or ribbon through a loop or hem

Bodkin from Museum of London

This is a bodkin.

(from The Museum of London)

Picture 4165

This is also a bodkin.

(from The Imperial War Museums)

The reason I mention bodkins is that I learned this week that Sir Isaac Newton, considered by many to have been an intelligent man, spent some time in the 1660s sticking one into his eye.  On purpose.

Newton was famously interested in optics and the nature of light.  However, he was also interested in the visual stimulus, and the physiological processes by which objective reality is perceived by us.

So, to address this question, Sir Isaac Newton thought it would be sensible to start poking himself in the eye with a large needle.  We know this because, like any good scientist, Isaac Newton left detailed experimental notebooks.  He even included helpful illustrations.

Bodkin in Eye

From the Cambridge University Library

And therein, perhaps, lies the difference between the dedicated scientist and the layperson.  It would take a great deal of persuasion to get a normal person to poke themselves in the eye with a needle – Isaac Newton did it because he hoped he might learn something about color.

And did he?  Well, sort of.  He learned that, when you poke yourself in the eye, you disrupt your vision.  When he stuck the bodkin between his eyeball and his eye socket, “as neare to backside of my eye as I could”, then he saw spots.  Those spots were clearest “when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of bodkine”.

That’s science, baby!

I first heard about Isaac Newton poking himself in the eye for science in The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick, a book completely worth picking up if you have any interest in the history of science.

2 thoughts on “Isaac Newton, His Eye, and His Bodkin

  1. But what was the conclusion? Like, It’s understandable that he poked his eye with a needle but what did he discovered other than spots? There is much more to it. No offense, It’s just that don’t you think he might have discovered something after rubbing his eye sockets with a needle. If you know, then please mention I would love to hear how you describe it because a bloggers skill is actually how one makes a topic interesting and fascinating from boring and dull. You’re an amazing blogger and I see a very bright future for you if you keep on writing. Keep up the good work!

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