What you don't know about Isaac Newton.

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Oct. 21 2004 3:27 PM

Isaac Newton's Gravity

How a major new exhibition gets the scientist wrong.

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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.

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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.

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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.

James Gleick's biography Isaac Newton was a 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist and is being translated into more than a dozen languages.

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