A new online Isaac Newton archive sheds light on an era where science, theology, alchemy and plain old black magic was all intertwined, Liz Williams reports for the Guardian.
Back in the day, our ancestors were not nearly as concerned with the question of where science separates from spiritual practice as we are. They just went with it--sometimes with what we today would consider a reckless disregard of actual science.
Israel's national library recently uploaded the archive of 7,500 handwritten religious writings from Newton and placed it online. "Today, we tend to make a distinction between science and faith, but to Newton it was all a part of the same world," Milka Levy-Rubin, a curator, told an AP reporter. "He believed that careful study of holy texts was a type of science, that if analyzed correctly could predict what was to come."
Liz Williams reports:
Newton was characteristically thorough: he learned Hebrew, and studied Kabbalism and the Talmud in order to divine future events.These recently published writings include work on the geometry of Solomon's Temple, and interpretation of the Bible. He predicted the end of the world (2060, just for change). These days, we may scoff: it's all too easy to envisage Newton as some socially challenged hacker looking up conspiracy theories on the internet. John Maynard Keyne’s comment that Newton was "the last of the magicians" rather than the "first of the Age of Reason" may be inaccurate from both sides of the mirror (he certainly wasn't the last of the magicians in his country), but Keynes had a point.
Newton was not alone in his belief that scripture could provide a code to the natural world as his view was commonly held by other commentators, both philosophers of science and historians of esoteric. They all had similar interest in theology, alchemy, divination, physics, optics, healing and black magic. Although, alchemy was a risky undertaking as it was banned at the time.
As it turned out, Newton did not succeed in producing philosopher's stone or the elixir of life, but he did manage to generate a dendritic Diana's Tree (or Philosopher's Tree) from mercury in a solution of silver nitrate, which he was convinced had an innate life within metals.
In many ways Newton created an example of how to take a cautious modern approach to science, Williams notes. He was notoriously reluctant to publish anything he was unsure of, which is an area where alchemy and religious writing falls. One might argue that from this approach he bridges the gap between magic and science more effectively than what might otherwise appear.
Most of his alchemic work ended up in the possession of Maynard Keynes except for the religious writings that were passed on to a Jewish document collector, Abraham Yahuda, who also turned up at the same auction in 1936. After Yahuda's death, the collection went to the Jerusalem National and University Library. The archive can be accessed through the University of Sussex's Newton Project.
[Via the Guardian]
Photograph courtesy: The National Library of Israel and Cambridge University Library/ PA