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The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts
The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts
Sarah Dry
Oxford University Press, 2014
256 pp., 37.95

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Karl W. Giberson

The Last Magician

Isaac Newton with contradictions intact.

Nature and Nature's laws lay hidden in night;
God said "Let Newton Be!" and all was light.

—Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope's homage to Isaac Newton reflected the legacy of the great scientist as seen at the time of his death. The oft-quoted couplet comes from Pope's Essay on Man, first published anonymously in 1733 and 1734, less than a decade after Newton died. Pope's mythologizing of Newton came sooner than one might have expected, especially in an era before mass media made it so easy to secure great fame. Nowadays only in North Korea can a direct connection to divinity be established so quickly.

Before his death at the age of 83, Newton was widely celebrated as a singular, towering, transcendent intellect, who pushed our rational capacities into unoccupied precincts long considered unreachable. In the preface to a later edition of his most famous work, Principia Mathematica, Newton's friend Edmond Halley (of cometary fame) wrote a tribute that ends with these glowing words:

Then ye who now on heavenly nectar fare,
Come celebrate with me in song the name
Of Newton, to the Muses dear; for he
Unlocked the hidden treasuries of Truth:
So richly through his mind had Phoebus cast
The radiance of his own divinity.
Nearer the gods no mortal may approach.

Newton wrapped up the Scientific Revolution, securing the place of science in society once and for all—first in Britain, then Europe, and now, of course, throughout the world. If the future of science seemed at all tenuous in 1633, when an elderly and chastened Galileo knelt on the hard marble floors of the Vatican and recanted his astronomy, such concerns were dispelled by the time Newton, born on Christmas day in the year of Galileo's death, died less than a century later.

Newton's first biographers, writing awkwardly at a time when biographies were mainly inspirational stories of religious saints, transformed Newton into the great symbol of the Enlightenment—the embodiment of the triumph of science over religion, of hard-nosed facts over mushy superstition, of reason over revelation.

The intervening centuries have witnessed the expansion of the supposed divide between science and religion until now many simply assume that science, reason, secularism, and even atheism are a package deal—you embrace one and the others follow. In Ray Comfort's bombastic "documentary" Evolution versus God, he sticks a microphone in people's faces and challenges them to justify their belief in evolution and lack of belief in God. He asks an associate professor of anthropology at UCLA, who admits she does not believe in God, to "name a famous atheist." She responds "Isaac Newton."

That a presumably well-informed scientist at a major university could think that Newton was an atheist is astonishing. It is also worrisome, given that viewing Newton as an atheist is a self-serving confusion, like thinking that human activities are not causing climate change, or that Obama was born in Kenya. "Newton as atheist" represents successful propaganda of a particularly pernicious sort—the sort that motivated Sam Harris to complain that Francis Collins couldn't be an effective scientist because he had religious beliefs, or PZ Myers to describe my endorsement of theistic evolution as "halfway to crazytown."

A great back story illuminates this odd historical puzzle, however, and is ably told by Sarah Dry in The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts. Newton, as most scholars who don't teach anthropology at UCLA now know, was deeply, obsessively, and idiosyncratically fascinated with religion, especially the Bible. He wrote more pages about the Bible than he did about math and physics, but he published only the latter, leaving posterity to puzzle over the disposition of the former.

When Newton died, his voluminous papers on religion began their long, strange trip. A fraction made it into print right away, but most went into hiding, emerged into the light in the early 20th century, and eventually showed up on the Internet. The implications of the papers have yet to seep into our cultural consciousness, where the historical Newton remains a caricature. And frankly, I doubt that the "real" Newton will ever make it beyond the walls of the academy and the pages of a few highbrow journals like this one.

The last project on which Newton worked, using up his final bits of mental energy, was unrelated to physics or math. Titled The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, the 87,000-word piece corrected what Newton thought were egregious errors in the accepted histories of his day. In particular, Newton sought to prove that Solomon was the first king in the world and that his temple was the first temple ever built, with subsequent temples being copies. His proposed dates are wildly off, and his Chronology exerted no influence on our ideas of history.

Newton requested that his voluminous papers be sorted after his death, with anything of value being published in due course. His Chronology was published almost immediately and fetched an impressive $50,000 in today's dollars. Two other publications followed in the next few years: the final volume of the Principia Mathematica—his masterpiece on gravity and the laws of physics—and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and The Apocalypse of St. John. A 2011 publication of the latter is, as of this writing, selling more briskly than any of my books on Amazon.com. Its sales may pick up over the next few decades as it targets 2060 as the date of the apocalypse.

The rest of Newton's papers were dismissed into the hands of John Conduitt, a confidante who had married Newton's niece, Catherine. Conduitt set out to write a biography, which never made it past the research stage. We don't know what derailed him, but in all likelihood it had much to do with Newton's theological heresies. Newton was convinced—and angry in his conviction—that the Church fathers had wrongly proclaimed in the 4th century that Jesus was fully divine and belonged in the Trinity. St. Athanasius, said Newton, was a theological scoundrel, manipulating the Church into exalting Jesus beyond what the Bible could support. (Newton's rejection of the Trinity was ironic, since he had spent his career on the faculty at Trinity College in Cambridge!)

In the decades after Newton's death, biographies and encyclopedia accounts kept him on a steadily rising pedestal of secular scientific enlightenment, as he evolved in the popular imagination into a symbol of the victory of science over religion. Nevertheless, his unpublished work and voluminous correspondence suggested another side to the great scientist. A curious response to this apparent contradiction appeared in an extended 1822 encyclopedia entry by the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot. Informed acquaintances of Newton had long known that he had a mental breakdown around 1792, when he was 50 years old. The breakdown was so severe that for two years he could not even understand his own work. During this period of dementia, Newton wrote a strange letter to John Locke accusing the great philosopher of trying to "embroil me with women" and "sell me an office." Newton even told Locke it would be "better if he were dead." Locke's response indicates that he had absolutely no idea what Newton was talking about. Newton penned a letter of apology retracting the odd claims, and blaming them on persistent insomnia.

Biot confirmed Newton's dementia and used it to sunder Newton into two incompatible halves—a young clear-headed genius interested only in science, and a demented senior far past his prime, obsessed with theological nonsense. Biot's bifurcation enraged those most familiar with Newton, who knew better; it enraged everyone in England, who objected to this treatment of their national hero. After all, the elderly Newton had been Master of the Mint in England, a complex task he had executed with remarkable skill. But it satisfied those for whom scientific rationality and religious belief were a zero sum game—where the former could increase only if the latter were to decrease.

Biot's two Newtons continued to trouble Newton scholars. His achievement, of course, stood the test of time and became the paradigm for the many sciences that developed in its wake. As late as 1859, Sir John Herschel would object that Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was disappointingly un-Newtonian, calling it the "Law of Higgedy-Piggledy." The 19th century also saw the steady growth of anti-clericalism in science, waged in large part as a propaganda campaign emphasizing the "war" between science and religion—a campaign that, as we saw above, would ultimately convince many that Newton must have been an atheist.

In The Newton Papers, Sarah Dry tells the remarkable tale of how Newton's unpublished works, personal correspondence, and some obscure posthumously published material orbited about the great natural philosopher like comets about the sun—occasionally appearing with great drama, but generally out of sight. The story of the manuscripts reaches a quiet, almost invisible, climax when John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, casually arrives at a Sotheby's auction in London on July 13, 1936.

The auction house, of which Dry provides a fascinating description, had over 300 collections of Newton's papers, called "lots." The bidding on the lots was lackluster. Nobody really knew what was contained in the five million words handwritten by the most famous scientist in history. Nobody had seen all of the papers and only a handful had seen even a few—and many of them had conspired to ensure their content remained secret. Newton's papers were auctioned off for about a half million dollars in today's currency, a pittance considering that 5 pages of his notes can bring in more than that today. Keynes bought 38 of the lots. The rest went to professional dealers with limited interest in them.

The influential Keynes began to read and was astonished at the Newton that arose from the centuries-old dusty manuscripts. He was only too eager to reveal this new Newton to the world—Newton the alchemist; Newton the biblical scholar; Newton the theologian; Newton the conspiracy theorist; Newton the pre-modern man clad for three centuries in ill-fitting Enlightenment garb.

Keynes saw Newton's varied and eclectic interests as springing from the common pre-modern intuition that the world was a unified system, where everything affected everything, and all was an expression of the divine. God, by these lights, had placed clues to understand planetary motion in the heavens; clues to understand the alchemical powers of matter in obscure ancient texts; clues to understand when the world would end in the Bible. The same Newton who waited patiently for new observations of the moon to check against his gravitational calculations pored over apocalyptical literature to figure out when the world would end.

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason," wrote Keynes in the essay that would expose the troubled complexity of the great scientist to the world. "He was the last of the magicians." Unlike Biot, with his "two Newtons," Keynes was convinced that all of Newton's work sprang from the same genius, that the "wayward" investigations into alchemy, the Trinity, and prophecy were not the product of a mind in decline but arose from the same wellspring that gave us the law of universal gravitation.

Dry notes that Keynes' corrective pendulum may have swung too far in moving Newton from "clear-headed rationalist" to "wild-eyed magician." Nevertheless the true Newton was, at least for those with any inclination to look, visible at last. In all of his wild-eyed madness, cold rational analysis, theological obscurantism, and social eccentricity, he now resides in that most public of places—the Internet.

Singular figures like Newton—or Jefferson, or Einstein, or Lincoln—rarely show up with all their contradictions intact. They are historical shape-shifters, too useful as caricatures, easily conscripted into armies on either side of the same battle. Newton spent two centuries as the poster boy for enlightened rationalism, his religious beliefs ignored or dismissed as the product of senility. Now he is recalled as a famous atheist by those fighting that battle. But he is also invoked as an anti-evolutionary creationist and Bible-believing scientist by those who find that version of Newton more attractive. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has long used Newton to fight evolution: "Newton was not unacquainted with the atheistic evolutionary theory on origins," we read on their website.

He was convinced against it and wrote: "Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and every where, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being, necessarily existing." (http://www.icr.org/article/newton/)

Nowhere on the ICR website do we find any acknowledgment that Newton was formally a heretic who denied the full divinity of Jesus.

Hardly a semester goes by that I do not teach a class at Stonehill College covering Newton and the Scientific Revolution in some way. After a week of watching students' eyes glaze over with discussions of elliptical orbits and gravitational forces, I conclude with a discussion of what Newton has meant to the world. I share many of the accolades that have been heaped on him by everyone from his friend Halley to Stephen Hawking. I conclude the discussion with a winsome image of my three-year-old nephew, Aaron, playing on a beach. The image contains this extraordinary quote from Newton:

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.

Karl W. Giberson is professor of science & religion at Stonehill College. The author of many books, he served most recently as editor of Abraham's Dice: Chance and Providence in the Monotheistic Traditions, published earlier this year by Oxford University Press.

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