Questionable judgement?

Even Newton had to please the peer reviewers

Anne Osbourn 12 July 2006

In my view Newton spends too much time in a darkened chamber illuminating things, with only a dog for company

Nepotism, cronyism and corruption are always a concern in scientific publishing. But there isn’t anything new about this. It is an age-old tradition. Take, for example, this letter, which was shown to me by one of the archivists at the Royal Society:

Dear Mr Newton

Thank you for submitting your manuscript “The theory of light and colours, Newton, I” (m/s no. 1672-6) to The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The manuscript has now been assessed by three independent reviewers. Their comments are as follows:

Reviewer #1:

Newton reports the splitting of white light into different colours (he claims at least seven). The data are well presented and the figures are visually appealing. However my concern is that Newton’s observations are artifacts arising from the corruption of light by aberrations in his prism. Newton has attempted to counter this criticism by using a glass lens (which may also have its imperfections) to focus the coloured rays onto a wall. The result of this experiment was white light. Newton regards this as an unequivocal demonstration that white light is indeed comprised of multi-coloured components. I disagree. Two wrongs do not make a right; seven colours do not make white light. I regret that I am unable to support the publication of this treatise in The Philosophical Transactions. I trust that the more specialized journals will be equally cautious.

Reviewer #2:

White light is pure. Newton, with his cut-glass prism and his warped lens, has adulterated it - transformed it into vulgar colours. He has destroyed purity and created an illusion. In my view Newton spends too much time in a darkened chamber illuminating things, with only a dog for company. I believe that he should get out more; fresh air will replenish his soul (although I do appreciate that the Plague has made life a little tricky recently). The Philosophical Transactions is a highly regarded journal. It will lose all credibility if it agrees to publish heresy of this kind.

Reviewer #3:

Newton has destroyed the majesty of the rainbow. He has taken something intangible and called it “refrangible”. This is untenable in my view.

As you can see from the above comments, the response to your treatise has not been favourable. Reviewers #1 and #2 have substantial doubts about the validity and ethics of your interpretations, respectively, while reviewer #3 has more aesthetic concerns. I have re-read the reviewers’ comments several times and have studied your manuscript in detail. The decision has not been easy. However I also consulted the Editor-in-Chief, who confirms that he did indeed make light in many colours. Or at least he thinks he did. He can’t quite recall the details; it was a very long time ago. In summary, after much careful consideration, and in view of your generous gift of a reflecting telescope to the Society, I am pleased to say that I am willing to accept your article for publication in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Please note that the cost of production of colour figures is likely to be substantial. Blew, in particular, is an expensive pigment.

I wish you continued success in your new areas of research on gravity, tidal forces and the universe.


Henry Oldenburg

Secretary to the Royal Society

Other articles by Anne Osbourn