What you don't know about Isaac Newton.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 21 2004 3:27 PM

Isaac Newton's Gravity

How a major new exhibition gets the scientist wrong.

(Continued from Page 1)

Before this sorry business, Leibniz himself had said, "Taking mathematics from the beginning of the world to the time when Newton lived, what he had done was much the better half." Nothing learned by modern science diminishes Newton's glory—not relativity or quantum mechanics or chaos theory. His fingerprints mark every part of science. He does not need debunkers.

So, the library offers a portrait on the model of David Brewster's 1831 hagiography: "Neither the partiality of rival nations, nor the vanity of a presumptuous age, has ventured to dispute the ascendancy of his genius," Brewster wrote. These words are still true today.

Advertisement

But we misunderstand Newton if we imagine him as a paragon of rationality and public science in the modern style. Brewster also wrote, "There is no reason to suppose that Sir Isaac Newton was a believer in the doctrines of alchemy," and these words don't hold up so well. Not only was he a believer; he was, in secret, the most complete and knowledgeable alchemist of his time.

Click on image to expand
Manuscript on display at the exhibit

If there was one turning point in modern Newton scholarship, it came in 1936, when a metal trunk of Newton's manuscripts arrived at Sotheby's in London. These notebooks and loose pages, amounting to 3 million unread words, were to be sold at auction in hundreds of individual lots. John Maynard Keynes, horrified by this sacrilege, was able to buy some lots immediately and gather others later; the rest were scattered around the world.

What Keynes found in these manuscripts amazed him: ethereal spirits, a secret fire pervading matter, a fixation on quicksilver—mercury—as "the masculine and feminine semens … fixed and volatile, the Serpents around the Caduceus, the Dragons of Flammel." We know now that Newton, the alchemist, hid behind a pseudonym, Jeova sanctus unus, as he slowly and unwittingly poisoned himself with the mercury he continually touched, smelled, and tasted.

None of this work led anywhere, as far as modern science is concerned, and none of it is reflected in the exhibit. Still, it's a part of the real Isaac Newton, a complex and tormented soul from a pre-Newtonian world. The birth of science was messier than you would think from The Newtonian Moment, and more interesting, too.

This is why Keynes, speaking not long before his own death, tried to persuade us not to think of Newton as "the Sage and Monarch of the Age of Reason" on display at the library; rather, as an "intense and flaming spirit."

"Newton was not the first of the age of reason," Keynes said. "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." Newton opened a door to our world, sure. But he belonged to the world we have left behind.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?