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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 Amazon.com

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 At his death, more than half of his writings were unpublished, including all his thoughts on religion and alchemy.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”.

 

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KB Kee is the Managing Editor of the Moat Report Asia (www.moatreport.com), a research service focused exclusively on highlighting undervalued wide-moat businesses in Asia; subscribers from North America, Europe, the Oceania and Asia include professional value investors with over $20 billion in asset under management in equities, some of the world’s biggest secretive global hedge fund giants, and savvy private individual investors who are lifelong learners in the art of value investing. KB has been rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as an analyst in Asian capital markets. He was head of research and fund manager at a Singapore-based value investment firm. As a member of the investment committee, he helped the firm’s Asia-focused equity funds significantly outperform the benchmark index. He was previously the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. KB has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy, value investing, macroeconomic and industry trends, and detecting accounting frauds in Singapore, HK and China. KB was a faculty (accounting) at SMU teaching accounting courses. KB is currently the Chief Investment Officer at an ASX-listed investment holdings company since September 2015, helping to manage the listed Asian equities investments in the Hidden Champions Fund. Disclaimer: This article is for discussion purposes only and does not constitute an offer, recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any investments, securities, futures or options. All articles in the website reflect the personal opinions of the writer.

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