The physicist's private religious and alchemical musings have tantalised scholars for centuriesby Sarah Dry / July 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
On his death in 1727, pioneering physicist Isaac Newton left behind a trove of manuscripts that he had shared with almost no one during his lifetime. The long-unpublished papers—containing some 10m words, or the equivalent of roughly a hundred novels—have tantalised scholars ever since. Newton famously left little published evidence of how he made his scientific discoveries. Could these private writings hold the key to understanding his genius?
Recovering the gold within his papers is no easy matter. The material is difficult on many levels. Forbiddingly technical, and unrelentingly heterogeneous, these are the writings of an introverted scholar working across six decades who was loath to throw away even the smallest scrap. One measure of the difficulty of this material is the fact that no comprehensive edition of Newton’s writings has ever been published.
To make matters worse, Newton left no will and no instructions for dealing with the papers. It was a strange omission that becomes clearer once it is understood just how inflammatory their contents were. The papers contained damning evidence of Newton’s heretical disbelief in the notion of the Trinity of God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost—which he believed to be a mere scriptural corruption. Newton’s fascination with alchemy was also evident from these papers, as was his unseemly obsession with abstruse matters of church history and doctrine.
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Immediately following Newton’s death, his relatives brought a Fellow of the Royal Society in to make a quick assessment of their worth (he had just three days with the papers). Unsurprisingly, he determined that, with a scant few exceptions, the papers were “Not fit to be printed.” The existence of these papers threatened Newton’s public image as a scientist-saint. His heirs soon decided that the best policy was one of genteel hush. The papers were packed up and kept in the family estate where they remained inaccessible to all but a few for more than a century.
Yet knowledge of their existence persisted and as the years passed, scholars never stopped hoping to unlock their secrets. In 1841, the logician, mathematician and pioneering historian of science Augustus De Morgan…