On his death in 1727, pioneering physicist Isaac Newton left behind a trove of manuscripts that he had shared with almost no one during his lifetime. The long-unpublished papers—containing some 10m words, or the equivalent of roughly a hundred novels—have tantalised scholars ever since. Newton famously left little published evidence of how he made his scientific discoveries. Could these private writings hold the key to understanding his genius?
Recovering the gold within his papers is no easy matter. The material is difficult on many levels. Forbiddingly technical, and unrelentingly heterogeneous, these are the writings of an introverted scholar working across six decades who was loath to throw away even the smallest scrap. One measure of the difficulty of this material is the fact that no comprehensive edition of Newton’s writings has ever been published.
To make matters worse, Newton left no will and no instructions for dealing with the papers. It was a strange omission that becomes clearer once it is understood just how inflammatory their contents were. The papers contained damning evidence of Newton’s heretical disbelief in the notion of the Trinity of God the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost—which he believed to be a mere scriptural corruption. Newton’s fascination with alchemy was also evident from these papers, as was his unseemly obsession with abstruse matters of church history and doctrine.
Immediately following Newton’s death, his relatives brought a Fellow of the Royal Society in to make a quick assessment of their worth (he had just three days with the papers). Unsurprisingly, he determined that, with a scant few exceptions, the papers were “Not fit to be printed.” The existence of these papers threatened Newton’s public image as a scientist-saint.
Stable, conventional folk have a hard time with geniuses because stable conventionals just don’t “get” a central fact: The qualities that enabled Newton to formulate usable laws of motion* meant that he was never going to be a club member in good standing at “Aren’t I Good?” Girls.
Many of us can choose but the choice was probably forced on Newton by his outstanding abilities.
* Vulgarized presentations of the story say that Newton “invented” the laws of motion. But that’s nonsense; most people understood then and now how motion works. But intuitions don’t lead directly to calculations. Newton formulated laws that enabled reliable calculations, which was a huge boost to technology in an age that was hungry to improve living standards thereby.
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