The Newton You Didn’t Know

Written by Joel A. Klein

Illustration of Isaac Newton (1643–1727) in Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or Universal dictionary of arts, sciences & literature . . . compiled, digested, and arranged by John Wilkes . . . assisted by eminent scholars, London, Adlard, 1810–29. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Illustration of Isaac Newton (1643–1727) in Encyclopaedia Londinensis, or Universal dictionary of arts, sciences & literature . . . compiled, digested, and arranged by John Wilkes . . . assisted by eminent scholars, London, Adlard, 1810–29. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Isaac Newton (1643–1727) is generally regarded as one of the most significant individuals in the history of science, and he is remembered principally for his work on natural philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy.

In addition to articulating the laws of motion that laid the foundation for classical mechanics, Newton was the first person to formulate a law of universal gravitation and also co-invented calculus (at the same time as his nemesis Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz).

Indeed, Newton has thus often been portrayed as the incarnation of scientific genius who overturned superstition and ushered in the Age of Reason.

So, when it came to light in the early 20th century that Newton was not only a practicing alchemist but also entertained heterodox interpretations of Christian theology and spent a great deal of time, for instance, attempting to unravel numerological Biblical codes, the understanding of Newton as the icon of modern science was thrown into question. In his 1946 essay “Newton, the Man,” the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) succinctly captured this sentiment when he wrote that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.”

In recent years, however, historians of science have explored the diverse aspects of Newton’s thought to give a more nuanced portrait, and beyond compelling us to reconsider our understanding of Newton the man, this work has been central to a broader rethinking of some of our assumptions about the history of science. Scholars are still untangling the complexities of Newton’s thought, but their work has generally pointed toward a more coherent understanding of Newton where, for example, his alchemical pursuits informed other parts of his natural philosophy.

The alchemical treatise “Praxis,” dated to the 1690s, contains Newton’s attempt to decipher the process of synthesizing the philosophers’ stone from a variety of other alchemical texts. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
The alchemical treatise “Praxis,” dated to the 1690s, contains Newton’s attempt to decipher the process of synthesizing the philosophers’ stone from a variety of other alchemical texts. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington has played an important role in this rethinking of Newton as it is home to the largest collection of Newtoniana in the United States. A majority of our Newton holdings are on loan from Babson College (in Wellesley, Massachusetts), whose founder, Roger Babson, and his spouse, Grace K. Babson, were major collectors.

The Babsons’ interest in Newton sprang from the idea that human relations and economic markets were governed by Newton’s law of action and reaction—just as objects in the physical world are. In addition, Roger Babson was an entrepreneur and business theorist whose philosophy, much like Newton’s, both bucked convention and was fiercely ambitious.

Recognizing the importance of the Newton materials to cultural heritage and scholarship, the Babsons committed to preserving the collection and making it available for use, and so in 1995, it was placed on deposit at the Burndy Library of the Dibner Institute at MIT.

Then, in 2006, the entire Burndy Library, including the Babson Collection, came to The Huntington, where our preservation and curatorial staff care for the materials, and where scholars from around the world continue to explore Newton’s diverse interests.

Babson’s Newton materials have been featured in the permanent Library exhibition “Beautiful Science” as well as in the current exhibition in the Library’s West Hall, “What Now: Collecting for the Library in the 21st Century, Part 1” (on view through Feb. 17). In addition, The Huntington hosted a conference in 2014 devoted to Newton, titled “All in Pieces? New Insights into the Structure of Newton’s Thought,” which was supported by funds from the Dibner History of Science Program at The Huntington.

This small manuscript has numerous alchemical and astrological drawings in Newton’s own hand. Newton was a voracious reader of alchemical literature, and it is clear that he drew much of the material in this manuscript from other alchemical texts, including, for instance, one that discussed a pseudonymous alchemical author claiming to be Nicolas Flamel (ca. 1330–1418.) The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
This small manuscript has numerous alchemical and astrological drawings in Newton’s own hand. Newton was a voracious reader of alchemical literature, and it is clear that he drew much of the material in this manuscript from other alchemical texts, including, for instance, one that discussed a pseudonymous alchemical author claiming to be Nicolas Flamel (ca. 1330–1418). The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

William R. Newman, professor at Indiana University and the 2014–15 Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor in the History of Science at Caltech and The Huntington, recently published Newton the Alchemist: Science, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature’s “Secret Fire, a book which drew extensively from the alchemical manuscripts in the Babson Collection. Especially important was the so-called “Praxis” manuscript, which Newman describes as “The most highly developed extant specimen of Newton’s attempt to work out the processes of the adepts.”

Since the Enlightenment, alchemy has often been considered a pseudoscience that hindered scientific progress, but Newton’s alchemical manuscripts show that, just like his work in physics and mathematics, his work in alchemy combined theory and practice, careful reading with hands-on experimentation—and demonstrated his extraordinary attention to detail. Like his physics, it showed what Newton thought to be his best quality: what he called “patient thought.”

We also see that Newton was motivated by a profound curiosity and the belief that no intellectual challenge was too daunting to tackle—even unlocking the secrets of the material world. Beyond this, though, Newman is among a group of historians who have shown that the alchemy practiced by Newton and other aspirants to the philosophers’ stone had an important influence on the emergence of modern science, for instance on the development of the theory of atomism and the concept of mass balance, the notion that the input mass of a chemical process must equal the output.

Isaac Newton, A treatise or remarks on Solomon’s Temple. “Prolegomena ad lexici prophetic partem secundam in quibus agitur De forma sancturaii Judaici . . . Commentarium” (after 1690). Newton believed that the architecture of Solomon’s Temple held divine secrets that had long ago been lost. He based his description and this sketch upon detailed comparisons of the biblical Hebrew text with the Septuagint and the Vulgate versions. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Isaac Newton, A treatise or remarks on Solomon’s Temple. “Prolegomena ad lexici prophetic partem secundam in quibus agitur De forma sancturaii Judaici . . . Commentarium” (after 1690). Newton believed that the architecture of Solomon’s Temple held divine secrets that had long ago been lost. He based his description and this sketch upon detailed comparisons of the biblical Hebrew text with the Septuagint and the Vulgate versions. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Babson Collection has also been central to the reevaluation of Newton’s religion. Over the course of his extraordinarily productive life, Newton wrote more on religious topics than he did on all of his scientific interests combined. His contemporaries considered him an erudite and astute theologian, but had all of his views been made public, he would undoubtedly have received a more negative appraisal. In short, by the standards of his era, Newton was a heretic. Most egregiously, he denied the trinity and believed that Christ was a creation of God.

Newton was also heavily invested in biblical prophecy, chronology, and even the symbolic interpretation of biblical architecture. The “Solomon’s Temple” manuscript is arguably the most outstanding item in the Babson Collection and was written at a time when the determination of the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple was a major puzzle in theological inquiry. Newton believed that the architecture of the temple held coded ancient secrets about God and the universe, and he was far from alone in this. Science and religion have often been portrayed as bitter antagonists, but the study of individuals like Newton has revealed a much more complicated picture.

This official document, countersigned by Newton, is from his early years as warden of the Royal Mint. It is a certificate of bail in the amount of ₤300—not an insignificant sum—for one John Irish, who was accused of clipping coins. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
This official document, countersigned by Newton, is from his early years as warden of the Royal Mint. It is a certificate of bail in the amount of ₤300—not an insignificant sum—for one John Irish, who was accused of clipping coins. The Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Another area of the Babson Collection that scholars have recently explored concerns Newton’s time at the Royal Mint. By the final decade of the 17th century, Newton had garnered significant celebrity for his work in physics and mathematics, and as a result, he was offered the position of warden (1696–1700) and then master (1700–1727) of the Royal Mint.

Newton took very seriously what was supposed to have been a formal sinecure at the mint and involved himself in the reform of currency and even the prosecution and punishment of coin clippers and counterfeiters. The Babson Collection has several manuscript documents that were issued by the mint and show that Newton carried out his administrative affairs with the same assiduousness as his physics and mathematics, including the prosecution of these crimes (which were punishable by death).

Newton’s genius is strongly resistant to simple characterization, and while it is now clear that he was neither an Enlightenment rationalist nor an irrational magician, there continue to be many questions about how the diverse areas of his thought worked together. Whatever the answers to these questions reveal, the Babson Collection will undoubtedly continue to help scholars uncover new aspects of Newton and the history of science that we didn’t know.

Joel A. Klein is the Molina Curator of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences at The Huntington.

Read more at www.huntington.org


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Comments (13)

  • Avatar

    Carbon Bigfoot

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    One of my heroes. IMHO Newton’s genius is without question. His devolving into Alchemy and alleged self-medication with toxic mercury perhaps contaminated some of his thought.
    Those of us involved with chemical processes know that INPUT-OUTPUT=ACCUMULATION meaning the theory of mass balance is imperfect but the means to evaluate that at that time were unavailable.

  • Avatar

    Jerry Krause

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    Hi Joel,

    First I must compliment you and Huntington for exploring the actual history of Newton and the beginning of what we now call Science–a method of learning based upon experimentation and observation.

    But it seems you are somewhat unaware that chemists have long been aware of Newton’s alchemical experiments and interests, until maybe recently when it seems the teaching of history in introductory chemistry and physicists classes has gone by the wayside.. For you wrote: “We also see that Newton was motivated by a profound curiosity and the belief that no intellectual challenge was too daunting to tackle—even unlocking the secrets of the material world. Beyond this, though, Newman is among a group of historians who have shown that the alchemy practiced by Newton and other aspirants to the philosophers’ stone had an important influence on the emergence of modern science, for instance on the development of the theory of atomism and the concept of mass balance, the notion that the input mass of a chemical process must equal the output.”

    Maybe a better title for your article would be: ‘The Newton Historians Didn’t Know’.

    How could you write this article and not mention Robert Boyle and the Royal Society? “Robert Boyle was an Anglo-Irish scientist who is famous for Boyle’s Law, his air pump and for his renowned work The Sceptical Chymist, due to which he is considered by many as the Father of Modern Chemistry. He helped found the Royal Society, wanted to unravel the secrets of alchemy and was deeply religious.” (Wikipedia) I must correct this history for the air pump was the invention of Robert Hook (who terribly embarrassed Newton with a thought experiment).

    And relative to the topic of alchemistry, I have yet to read that Galileo wrote (as translated by Crew and de Salvio, 1914): “Gold and silver when pulverized with acids [acque forti] more finely than is possible with any file still remain powders, and do not become fluids until the finest particles [gl’ indivisibili] of fire or of the rays of the sun dissolve them, as I think, into their ultimate, indivisible, and infinitely small components.”

    Yes, it is true I never learned this in a chemistry class that Galileo knew about the experiments of alchemists, if he was not an alchemist, and had a theory that matter was composed of indivisible tiny atoms. But I have read (The Martyrs of Science, or, the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler by David BREWSTER (1781 – 1868)) that Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who was an contemporary of Galileo, definitely was a practicing alchemist.

    But what Galileo wrote about the chemistry of gold and silver establishes the historical fact that alchemists had made the acid, acque forti, which chemists have obviously long known to be a mixture (solution) of hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. Which two acids likely needed to be made by using concentrated sulfuric acid.

    You wrote: “Since the Enlightenment, alchemy has often been considered a pseudoscience [by whom?] that hindered scientific progress, but Newton’s alchemical manuscripts show that, just like his work in physics and mathematics, his work in alchemy combined theory and practice, careful reading with hands-on experimentation—and demonstrated his extraordinary attention to detail.” This after you had written: “William R. Newman, professor at Indiana University and the 2014–15 Eleanor Searle Visiting Professor in the History of Science at Caltech and The Huntington, recently published Newton the Alchemist: Science, Enigma, and the Quest for Nature’s “Secret Fire,” a book which drew extensively from the alchemical manuscripts in the Babson Collection.” Enigma–an inscrutable person–inscrutable–incapable of being searched into and understood. Another possible title of Newman’s book might better have been: ‘Newton the Alchemist: What We Historians Should Have Learned Long Ago’.

    Have a good day, Jerry

  • Avatar

    Jerry Krause

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    Hi PSI Readers,

    The history of the scholarship of alchemists has been documented by the master artists. (https://www.pinterest.com/pin/469429961129225792/?d=t&mt=login)

    When one magnifies the paintings of alchemists of the linked site, it should become apparent they were studying more than alchemy. I looked for this documentation because I knew some masters documented this by painting alchemists in their ‘natural environment. I know there were paintings in which I could see a globe of the earth. Which, the globe is the focus of this comment.

    But I also wanted a reader to see that many alchemists were not secretive or even weird. Unless it is weird to try to learn about our natural world.

    Several weeks ago Michael Clarke had referred to Novaya Zemlya as if it was something I should know what it was and where it was. So I Googled it and found that it is a long, narrow, Arctic Ocean island off the coast of Russia a little east of Finland. And when I looked at the big map in front of me, the long dimension of this volcanic island appeared to be orientated in a general west to east direction and I did not consider this island further.

    But when I finally looked at this island on my little globe, it was readily apparent that the general west to east orientation was actually south to north. And it was apparent that the island blocked the west to east coastal current of the Arctic Ocean along the northern coasts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

    Clearly ocean circulation (and the possible driving agent–atmospheric circulation) are topics better suited for an essay instead of an isolated comment about alchemy.

    But I ask: Do you regularly study a globe to better understand weather and climate? R.C. Sutcliffe, a meteorologist wrote (Weather & Climate): “All this may seem a fry cry from the general circulation of the world’s atmosphere but the detail serves to point the moral, that one cannot explain the broad features of world climate if one does not know the actual mechanisms involved.”

    Have a good day, Jerry

    Have a good day, Jerry

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      Herb Rose

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      Hi Jerry,
      R.C Sutcliffe says that the clouds that form then disappear have a profound affect on the weather. Isn’t it the weather (the transfer of energy on the Earth) that is causing these clouds to form and disappear? Are they a cause or a result of weather?
      Have a good day,
      Herb

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    Jerry Krause

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    Hi Herb,

    It’s very devious of you to misquote Sutcliffe when a reader cannot read that you misquote him.

    Readers, Sutcliffe’s quote was: “Clouds which do not give rain, which never even threaten to give rain but which dissolve again into vapour before the precipitation stage is ever reached, have a profound effect on out climate.”

    Maybe you should get his book. Maybe in it he would answer your questions. It’s a good book.

    Have a good day, Jerry

    • Avatar

      geran

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      Jerry, I don’t think Herb was being devious. He did not use quotation marks, so he was not implying that those were Sutcliffe’s exact words.

      But, you used quotation marks, implying those were Sutcliffe’s exact words. So, what did Sutcliffe mean by “…out climate”?

      Or were you being devious, again?

      Have a great day.

    • Avatar

      Herb Rose

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      Hi Jerry,
      Climate, whether global or local, is determined by the energy at that location. Weather is how the energy from the sun is distributed around the globe. Clouds do not effect the climate but are an effect of the climate. Clouds block the energy from the sun and have a cooling effect. When the atmosphere cools the amount of water it can holds drops and more droplets form. The effect of clouds should be an increase in the cloud cover.
      Herb

      • Avatar

        Jerry Krause

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        Hi Herb,

        You wrote: “Climate, whether global or local, is determined by the energy at that location. … Clouds do not effect the climate but are an effect of the climate. Clouds block the energy from the sun and have a cooling effect.”

        It seems there is a clear contradiction in what you wrote.

        Have a good day, Jerry

        • Avatar

          Herb Rose

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          Hi Jerry,
          What I was trying to point out was the logical inconsistency of clouds effecting the climate. If clouds cause cooling and cooling causes more clouds which would lead to more clouds and more cooling. The climate would just continue cooling as clouds blocked more and more energy. It is the same logical inconsistency as Einstein’s E=mc^2. If the gravitational pull from a singularity causes an object to accelerate than the object would increase in velocity which would result in an increase in energy and an increase in mass, which would lead to an increase in the force of gravity then more velocity and so on.
          Have a good day,
          Herb

      • Avatar

        Jerry Krause

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        Hi Herb,

        I have written may times here at PSI that Richard Feynman taught his Caltech students a radiation scattering theory that 20 micrometer diameter cloud droplets (a common cloud size) would scatter most the infrared radiation being emitted from the earth surface (because of its surface temperature) many times more strongly than the same droplets would scatter solar radiation.

        Hence, an overcast sky, during the nighttime, greatly limits the cooling of the surface during such a nighttime as it scatters the infrared radiation being emitted from the surface back toward the surface. And one can find, using a thermometer, that the temperature do not cool near as much when you cannot see stars during the entire nighttime compared to a nighttime when you can see millions and millions of stars (Milky Way) during the nighttime.

        Have a good day, Jerry

        • Avatar

          Herb Rose

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          Hi Jerry,
          Water is very good at absorbing heat. If the temperature of the cloud droplets at night are the same as the temperature of the atmosphere (-20 C to – 50 C) how can they be scattering the heat coming from the Earth”s surface and not absorbing that heat raising their temperature?
          Have a good day,
          Herb

        • Avatar

          Jerry Krause

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          Hi Herb,

          You asked: “Hi Zoe,

          In 2016 I discovered PSI because Joe Postma was discussing Horace de Saussure ‘s hot box (https://principia-scientific.org/solving-global-warming-de-saussure-device-paradox/) at his site. I draw attention to this link because this essay contains an image of his hot box. Horace had seen that enclosures with glass windows, at that time (1767), got much warmer than the exterior temperature. So he reasoned that since the solar radiation passed through the glass, its energy must be somehow trapped inside the enclosure by the glass. So he designed, constructed, and tested his hot box to see how many panes of spaced glass would produce the greatest temperature. And the greatest temperature was little greater than 220oF when the box was triple glazed with 3 space panes and he pointed his hot box at the sun and even wiggled it a bit to heat its interior sides.

          I bring attention to the hot box because I consider it to be a simple instrument (radiometer) which measures the downwelling solar (DWS) incident upon it during the daytime and the DWIR during nighttime with a thermometer.

          For I have constructed two simple radiometer, very similar to de Saussure hot box, except extruded Styrofoam is used for the insulating structure and a temperature measuring device is placed beneath a sheet of aluminum foil painted black. One was triple glazed with three films of polyethylene (generally transparent to UWIR and DWIR) and another with 2 films of polyethylene with a top pane of glass to see what the influence of glass might be.

          Horace had to point his hot box at the sun to achieve its greatest temperature. I could level my boxes (latitude 45 degrees) and both would achieve, given a ‘clear sky’ within an hour of midday, a temperature of 220oF at which the radiometer had to be covered to prevent the Styrofoam from melting. It seems apparent that once Horace’s hot box had achieved its greatest temperature and had begun to cool, Horace terminated his experiment. For his experiment objective was to observe a maximum temperature.

          Now a fact is even before I had discovered Horace’s hot box, I had learned that Verner Suomi and others had designed an economical, lightweight (Styrofoam), net radiometer (two of my radiometers placed bottom to bottom) to be carried aloft by a weather sounding balloon Which measurements could only be made during the nighttime. So I tested my radiometer and found both gave similar results– interior temperatures down to 15oF below (sometimes) the atmospheric temperature just above the glazing of the radiometer. So I have to assume the surface of the painted aluminum foil was in a radiation equilibrium with the DWIR incident upon it. For it seems impossible to reason that the warmer atmosphere outside the radiometer could be cooling its interior. So it seems obvious that the glass pane was not greatly hindering the DWIR incident upon the radiometer.

          Zoe, can you question what I have observed (measured)? Do you believe I can use this observation to question your assertion that DWIR cannot be measured by an instrument?”

          “Thus Einstein assumed that there are three kinds of processes: an absorption proportional to the intensity of light, and emission proportional to the intensity of light, called induced emission or sometimes stimulated emission, and a spontaneous emission independent of light.” (The Feynman Lectures on Physics, pp42-9)

          Have a good day, Jerry

          • Avatar

            Jerry Krause

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            Hi Zoe and Herb,

            How these two comment made at different got intermingled I have no idea.

            Have a good day, Jerry

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