In Michael Hart’s 1978 book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History, renowned scientist Issac Newton was claimed as the second-most significant person to have ever lived, behind the Prophet Muhammad and ahead of Jesus Christ.
Newton was born, according to the Julian calendar in use in England at the time, on 25 December 1642, with the date also given as 4 January 1643, in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. His death is recorded as 20 March or 31 March 1727.
In the introduction to his 1997 book Isaac Newton: the Last Sorcerer, author Michael White described Newton as “an alchemist”.
“He had expended a vast amount of his time studying the chronology of the Bible, examining prophesy, investigating natural magic, and, most of all, attempting to unravel the hermetic secrets – the prisca sapientia (pristine knowledge, which had been possessed by the ancients).”
The Royal Society of Chemistry says of alchemy that “the aims of the alchemists were threefold: to find the Stone of Knowledge (the Philosophers’ Stone), to discover the medium of Eternal Youth and Health, and to discover the transmutation of metals. To the mediaeval alchemist’s mind the different elements were but the same original substance in varying degrees of purity. Gold was the purest of all and silver followed closely.”
A more subdued but still noteworthy commentary on Newton is supplied by Bernard Cohen and George E Smith in their introduction to the 2002 edition of The Cambridge Companion to Newton.
“Without dispute Newton was the giant of science in the 17th and 18th centuries,” they wrote.
Cohen and Smith declared, however, that the science for which Newton is known “occupied a much smaller fraction of his total intellectual life”, and that recent scholarship has brought added “appreciation of his efforts in such other areas as theology, prophesy, and alchemy”.
In announcing a 2004 exhibition at the New York Public Library titled The Newtonian Moment: Science and the Making of Modern Culture, Scientific American magazine wrote that “the pantheon of science holds few rivals of Isaac Newton, who co-invented calculus, analysed planetary motion mathematically and separated white light into its component colours”.
The show’s curator, California Institute of Technology history professor Mordechai Feingold, told the New York Sun newspaper that “Newton became science personified”.
Sarah Dry, author of The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts, was equally bold when she spoke to Wired magazine in 2014. “In the history of science there is no greater figure than Newton,” she said. “He was this shining emblem of Enlightenment rationality. If you ask people to name a scientist, they’re going to say Newton, Einstein, or Darwin. So he’s become an icon, both more and less than human.”
As Cohen and Smith explain, however, “what we now call science was then still part of philosophy, so-called ‘natural philosophy’, as in the full title of the work that turned Newton into a legend, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy… Newton’s Principia is the single work that most effected the divorce of physics, and hence science generally, from philosophy.”
They note that Newton is “commonly listed with Gauss [German scientist Carl Friedrich Gauss, 1777–1855] as the greatest mathematicians in history”. However, they say, “less widely recognised is the fact that Newton was among the most skilled experimental scientists in history… because such a large fraction of Newton’s experimental work is not well known. His experiments in alchemy and chemistry have yet to be published.”
Indeed, as Dry explains: “There’s roughly 10 million words that Newton left. Around half of the writing is religious, and there are about one million words on alchemical material, most of which is copies of other people’s stuff. There are about one million words related to his work as Master of the Mint. And then roughly three million related to science and math.”
White says early Newton scholarship tended to be hagiographic, and that it wasn’t until the 1930s that a true image of his works and interests began to come to light.
Much of what White calls “a true image” began to surface in 1936 when the economist John Maynard Keynes bought a trove of Newton papers at auction. Much of this material had been ignored by generations of Newton scholars, because some of Newton’s religious and alchemical writings were considered heretical at the time.
Keynes, Dry says, “was able to just sort of grab Newton’s alchemical writings. This had a major impact on what we know about Newton because Keynes kept the papers together.”
In 1942 the Royal Society of London’s plans to recognise the tercentenary of Newton’s birth had to be put on hold because of the WWII, but in 1946 the event was held. Keynes had been invited to speak but he died in April, three months before the celebrations took place. Keynes’ lecture was delivered by his brother, Geoffrey.
The preface to the text of Keynes’ lecture, published by the school of mathematics and statistics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, says he “was fascinated by Newton’s manuscripts and had been the first person to see some of the manuscript material by Newton which had been kept secret until his papers were sold in 1936”.
In the lecture, Keynes noted that: “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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