Half of Newton’s papers were on religion, 10% on alchemy and only 30% on science and math

Unlike Alfred Nobel who I posted about recently, Isaac Newton left no will when he died in 1727. But he left behind him a mass of papers estimated to run to about 10 million words. But most of the notes he left behind dealt with religious subjects and alchemy and his views were not just politically incorrect but potentially embarrassing if not dangerous to his heirs.

Wired has interviewed Sarah Dry who has just published her book on The Newton Papers.

WiredHe wrote a forensic analysis of the Bible in an effort to decode divine prophecies. He held unorthodox religious views, rejecting the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. After his death, Newton’s heir, John Conduitt, the husband of his half-niece Catherine Barton, feared that one of the fathers of the Enlightenment would be revealed as an obsessive heretic. And so for hundreds of years few people saw his work. It was only in the 1960s that some of Newton’s papers were widely published.

Now of course The Newton Project is putting all of his papers online and they have so far transcribed about 6.4 million words:

The Newton Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to publishing in full an online edition of all of Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642–1727) writings — whether they were printed or not. The edition presents a full (diplomatic) rendition featuring all the amendments Newton made to his own texts or a more readable (normalised) version. We also make available translations of his most important Latin religious texts.

Although Newton is best known for his theory of universal gravitation and discovery of calculus, his interests were much broader than is usually appreciated. In addition to his celebrated scientific and mathematical writings, Newton also wrote many alchemical and religious texts.

Sarah Dry traces the history of the Newton papers and how they languished over the years. It was not perhaps by conspiracy but there was some clear apprehension that sorting and cataloguing them would be embarrassing because there was so much of a “heretical” nature:

Sarah Dry in WiredThere’s roughly 10 million words that Newton left. Around half of the writing is religious, and there are about 1 million words on alchemical material, most of which is copies of other people’s stuff. There are about 1 million words related to his work as Master of the Mint. And then roughly 3 million related to science and math.

…… one of the messages of the book is that getting too involved in the papers can be hazardous to your health. One of the first editors of the papers said an older man should take up the task, because he’d have less to lose than a younger man.

This is highly technical stuff. The alchemical stuff is technical, the scientific stuff is technical, the religious stuff is technical. I was more interested in the papers and the characters that worked on them. One person was David Brewster, who wrote a biography of Newton during the Victorian Era. He fought long and hard to resuscitate Newton’s reputation. But he was also one of these Victorians that had to tell the truth. So when he published his biography [in 1855], it included much of the heresy and alchemy, despite the fact that Brewster was a good orthodox Protestant.

…. When the papers came to Cambridge in the late 1800s, they were unsorted and chaotic. And the two men given to sorting them were John Couch Adams and George Stokes. Adams was the co-discoverer of Neptune. He famously never wrote anything down. And Stokes was just as great a physicist, but he wrote everything down. He in fact wrote 10,000 letters. So these two guys get the papers, and then they sit on them for 16 years; they basically procrastinate.

When actually confronted with Newton’s paper, they were horrified and dismayed. Here was this great scientific hero. But he also wrote about alchemy and even more about religious matters. Newton spent a long time writing a lot of unfinished treatises. Sometimes he would produce six or seven copies of the same thing. And I think it was disappointing to see your intellectual father copying this stuff over and over. So the way Adams and Stokes dealt with it was to say that, “His power of writing a beautiful hand was evidently a snare to him.” Basically, they said he didn’t like this stuff, he just liked his own writing.

There’s also Grace Babson, who created the largest collection of Newton objects and papers in America. She was married to a man who got rich predicting the crash of 1929. And Roger Babson [her husband] based his market research on Newtonian principles, using the idea that for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. The market goes up so it must come down. Interestingly, he thought of gravity as an evil scourge.

Clearly people felt that tarnishing Newton’s image was a heresy in itself and they felt that publicising his stranger writings could do such damage to their icon. But the time since his death is critical here. Newton’s image  is now immune to such damage. I think that no matter how weird his views may have been about the Bible and prophecies and the occult and alchemy, they cannot – now – detract from his work on maths and physics and motion.

But his catalogers have a point. If one part of his work had been  debunked or ridiculed soon after his death, it could have damaged his reputation and even the credibility of his work in Physics and Maths. It is common practice now – as it was common practice then – for detractors to attack an opponent’s views on one subject obliquely, by denigrating his views or work in some other field. Wrong thinking in one field – by association – becomes wrong thinking in all fields.

It may have been different if they had TV in those days. For if Newton had lived in today’s world it could well be that his eminence in Physics and Maths  would have made him an instant TV pundit on all subjects. We would be suffering the pain of listening him to expound on his other weird and wonderful ideas. As we all must endure when we have to listen to actors pontificating about environmental science or psychiatrists excusing errant behaviour or politicians pretending they understand economics!!

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