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Sir Isaac Newton
(25 Dec 1642 - 20 Mar 1727)

English physicist and mathematician who made seminal discoveries in several areas of science, and was the leading scientist of his era.


Isaac Newton - Playing on the Seashore

Did Newton Really Say It?

Isaac Newton Quote: like a boy playing on the seashore [pebbles]…whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me
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“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
— Isaac Newton
Said to have been uttered a“ little before he died.”

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You may have seen this quote, attributed to Isaac Newton, but how sure is it that he actually said it? It does not appear in his writings. In fact, it seems it did not appear in print until a collection by Rev. Joseph Spence (1699-1768), Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, of Books and Men.1 There, it is purported to have been uttered by Newton “a little before he died” (1727), and was contributed by Andrew Michael Ramsey (1686-1743, known in France as Chevalier de Ramsay). However, note that the entry for Ramsay in the Dictionary of National Biography records he was in France at the time, only returning to England in 1730, which is after Newton's death. Thus it remains unclear how Ramsay came to know of the anecdote. 

Whatever the truth may be concerning a private conversation, it is, of course, lost in time. However, it remains an engaging description of Newton, as he regarded himself as only on the shore of a great ocean of truth. That insight certainly remains valid, for he could never have envisioned the atomic structure of matter, quantum theory and discoveries of the universe made by giant telescopes, space probes, and so much more.

When quoted in physicist David Brewster's biography of 1855, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton,2 there was no discussion of the origin of the words. Brewster was born in 1781, more than a half-century after Newton died, so he could have no first-hand knowledge, and could barely have known many people still living that met Newton, so even second-hand information would have been difficult to come by. However Brewster did provide a commentary: “What a lesson to the vanity and presumption of philosophers; to those, especially, who have never even found the smoother pebble or the prettier shell! What a preparation for the latest enquiries, and the last views, of the decaying spirit,—for those inspired doctrines which alone can throw a light over the dark ocean of undiscovered truth!”

Spence similarly footnoted the entry in his book, “This interesting anecdote of our great philosopher's modest opinion of himself and his discoveries, is only another proof of his consummate wisdom. It will recall to the memory of the poetical reader the following beautiful passage from the Paradise Regained of our great poet.” There followed an excerpt from John Milton's work, published in 1671,  in which line 330 refers to children gathering pebbles:4

————————— who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings, what need he elsewhere seek)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains;
Deep vers'd in books, and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge,
As children gathering pebbles on the shore.

Byron also makes direct reference to the metaphor in his “Don Juan”, when he wrote:5

Newton, (that proverb of the mind,) alas!
Declared, with all his grand discoveries recent,
That he himself felt only “like a youth
Picking up shells by the great ocean—Truth.”

There is a self-deprecating paraphrase by the astronomer John Herschel, who followed in Newton’s footsteps as Master of the Mint. He alluded to the Newton anecdote, when he explained, in 1826, why he did not seek Newton’s Lucasian Chair at Cambridge. Herschel wrote it was because he felt himself better suited “to loiter on the shores of the ocean of science and pick up such shells and pebbles as take my fancy for the pleasure of arranging them and seeing them look pretty.”3

There is an oft-told story of Newton being inspired by watching an apple fall. Another tells of Diamond, a dog that knocked over a candle on Newton's desk, and burned up a substantial manuscript. Those myths live on. Perhaps the “playing with pebbles” sentiment was also manufactured, no doubt in reverence to the passing of the genius. But, who knows?

1 Joseph Spence, Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, of Books and Men (1820), 54.
2 David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855), Vol. 2, 407-408.
3 Letter to William Whewell (17 Aug 1826), Add MS a 207¹², as cited in Silvan.S. Schweber, 'John Herschel and Charles Darwin: A Study in Parallel Lives', Journal of the History of Biology (1989), 22, 69.
4 The text above is as found in Spence. In John Milton and Henry J. Todd (ed.), Paradise Regained (2nd ed.,1809), Vol. 5, 262, there is an explanation of the phrase “worth a sponge.” An editorial footnote attributed to Dunster says the phrase “most probably alluded to the sponge as used by the ancients for the purpose of blotting out anything they had written, and did not choose to preserve.” Thus “worth a sponge literally means not worth seeing the light, not worth preserving.”
5 From poem, 'Don Juan,' (1822), canto 7, verse V. In Lord Byron, Don Juan: Cantos VI, VII and VIII (1823), 67.

Text by Webmaster.


See also:
  • Science Quotes by Sir Isaac Newton.
  • 25 Dec - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Newton's birth.
  • Isaac Newton - biography from Famous Men of Science (1889)
  • Isaac Newton - “Playing on the Seashore” illustrated quote - Medium 500px.
  • Isaac Newton - “Playing on the Seashore” illustrated quote - Large 800px.
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “A change in motion” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “A change in motion” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “In experimental philosophy” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “In experimental philosophy” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Standing on the shoulders of giants” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Standing on the shoulders of giants” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Impressed force is the action” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Impressed force is the action” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Inherent force of matter is the power of resisting…” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Inherent force of matter is the power of resisting…” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Plato is my friend” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Plato is my friend” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Colours which appear through the Prism ” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Colours which appear through the Prism ” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Nature does nothing in vain” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Nature does nothing in vain” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “No more causes of natural things should be admitted” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “No more causes of natural things should be admitted” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “God, in the beginning, formed matter” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “God, in the beginning, formed matter” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “The cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know” - Medium image (500 x 250 px)
  • Isaac Newton - context of quote “The cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know” - Large image (800 x 400 px)
  • Booklist for Isaac Newton.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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