Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion and universal gravitation form the core of modern physics, which is as apolitical a subject as one can imagine. However, the faculty of engineering at Sheffield University wants students to understand the “global origins and historical context” of his theories, and that he may have benefited from “colonial-era activity.”
That’s according to leaked university documents seen by the Telegraph last week. The documents set out a plan to “challenge long-standing conscious and unconscious biases” among students, and to rethink “Eurocentric” and “white saviour” approaches to science and promote “inclusive design.”
Newton’s discoveries are not controversial, yet if the documents are to be understood correctly, the fact that they were made during a time of European colonialism makes them suspect. The “historical context” that should be added to lessons is left unexplained, and it is not clear how Newton may have benefited from “colonial-era activity.”
Yet Newton isn’t the only thinker being re-examined by the university. Pioneering scientists like Paul Dirac, Pierre-Simon Laplace and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are all up for review.
‘Decolonization’ is a hot term among social justice-minded academics. Put simply it involves rethinking the notion that Western science, philosophy, and knowledge in general are superior to theories from the non-Western world, and contribute to the “oppression” of this world.
It’s been applied to history and political science, and invoked to topple statues of famous figures considered offensive to modern tastes. However, it’s also been applied to some unlikely subjects. Academics have argued that classical music, mathematics and ecology are all ripe for “decolonization,” on account of their domination by the white West.
Newton’s discoveries are many. In addition to his three laws of motion and law of universal gravitation, set out in 1787 in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Newton also built the first reflecting telescope, published theories of color and the speed of sound, and contributed to the development of calculus, alongside Leibniz.
Newton was less canny with his investments than he was with his research, and the only known example of him dabbling in the dark side of the colonial era was an investment in the slave-trading South Sea Company. Far from benefiting Newton, this investment lost him £20,000, a fortune at the time.
Even some of the most committed diversity-and-inclusion specialists aren’t keen on the idea of “decolonizing” physics.
“I’m employed by universities to do this training but for me equality, diversity and inclusion training is equality of opportunity, diversity of thought and inclusivity of action - that’s all," one unnamed diversity consultant told the Telegraph. “This is something different altogether. It is blatantly teaching people to be activists."