Sir Isaac Newton: Magician’s brain; The real Sir Isaac Newton was not first king of reason, but last of the magicians

Sir Isaac Newton: Magician’s brain; The real Sir Isaac Newton was not first king of reason, but last of the magicians

Jun 21st 2014 | From the print edition

The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts.By Sarah Dry. Oxford University Press; 272 pages; $29.95. Buy from

FEW scientists have had the influence of Sir Isaac Newton, who largely built the edifice of modern science. He was the first to formulate the laws of motion. He discovered and explained the law of gravity, and provided the theoretical framework through which the observations of Galileo Galilei and the planetary laws of Johannes Kepler could be understood. His experiments with sunlight and glass prisms and mirrors helped him understand the origin of colours and create a new kind of telescope. He invented calculus, independently of Gottfried Leibniz, feuding with him over who was first. And he was the first to postulate that the laws of physics would be the same all over the universe.

Newton’s genius was recognised while he was a young scholar at Cambridge. At the age of 26, he was made Lucasian professor of mathematics. By the time he died in 1727, at the ripe old age of 84, he had become a national icon: President of the Royal Society, and warden and master of the Royal Mint. He was interred in Westminster Abbey.

As befits a man of such prodigious reputation, Newton left behind a voluminous trove of papers: more than 7m words filling hundreds of notebooks and loose sheets of paper. These included drafts of successive editions of his crowning achievement, “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, as well as his treatise on light, “Opticks”. There were also letters to scientists and other scholars, pages of derivations of mathematics and physics formulae, and copious writings on alchemy and religion. The solitary and eccentric Newton apparently saved everything he wrote; among his papers are recipes for ink that he scribbled as a scholar at Cambridge. But he was reticent about publishing his work, fearing controversy and criticism (his fight with Leibniz over calculus had made him extra-sensitive). At his death, more than half of his writings were unpublished, including all his thoughts on religion and alchemy.

Sarah Dry’s engaging book, “The Newton Papers”, traces what happened to Newton’s unpublished manuscripts after his death. A lifelong bachelor, Newton died without leaving a will. His papers were inherited by John Conduitt, who had married Newton’s closest relative and housekeeper, his half-niece Catherine Barton. Conduitt started an effort to publish a biography of Newton, but in the end it was unsuccessful. As Ms Dry makes clear, Conduitt had a vested interest in guarding Newton’s reputation as a paragon of science. Conduitt probably recognised the explosive nature of Newton’s religious writings, which showed him to favour the doctrine of one God, denying the unity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Such anti-Trinitarianism would have been considered heretical by Newton’s contemporaries. It was common at the time for Cambridge faculty members (all of them men) to take holy orders in the Church of England; Newton, true to himself, refused.

After Conduitt and his wife died, Newton’s papers passed to the family of the Earls of Portsmouth, and there they remained for the best part of 150 years. Ms Dry catalogues what happened to Newton’s manuscripts through three centuries, how they were sold, dispersed and then partially reunited through the efforts of John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who developed a fascination with Newton’s alchemical writings, and Abraham Yahuda, a Jewish rabbinical scholar who was interested in Newton’s theological explanations. Ms Dry explains how 19th-century Cambridge luminaries, such as George Gabriel Stokes (who, like Newton, became the Lucasian professor) and John Couch Adams (who used Newtonian mechanics to predict the existence of the planet Neptune) struggled with Newton’s manuscripts, in the hope that they would yield further insight into the great man’s thinking. However, the vastness of the archive and its often abstruse nature thwarted easy categorisation.

The Newton that emerges from the manuscripts is far from the popular image of a rational practitioner of cold and pure reason. The architect of modern science was himself not very modern. He was obsessed with alchemy. He spent hours copying alchemical recipes and trying to replicate them in his laboratory. He believed that the Bible contained numerological codes. The truth is that Newton was very much a product of his time. The colossus of science was not the first king of reason, Keynes wrote after reading Newton’s unpublished manuscripts. Instead “he was the last of the magicians”.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: