The Invisible College

Sir Isaac Newton

13/06/2020
Celebrated by some as the most intelligent individual in human history – not least British history – Sir Isaac Newton remains one of the most influential men who has ever lived. Born in December 1642, Newton was both a premature child and a posthumous one; some might also add miraculous. If the man himself can be believed, the coming and unlikely survival of his tiny body occurred an hour or two after midnight on Christmas morning; his mother recounted him being so small he could have fit snugly inside a quart mug. The death of his father – also named Isaac – a few months earlier would be of profound consequence, leading to the young boy spending the first three years of his life with his mother before being raised predominantly by his grandmother when his mother married the local rector. Largely estranged from his mother and distant with his stepfather and future half-siblings, Sir Isaac would nevertheless in time nurse his mother through her final illness, enjoy the inheritance of his stepfather’s literary collection and act as a form of guardian to his half-niece.

The family estate at Woolsthorpe still exists. No longer a family home, ownership is now in the hands of the National Trust and open to the public. The famous apple tree that in later years became a legendary – if not slightly exaggerated – feature concerning the origin of his theory of gravity was destroyed by adverse weather in 1820; poignantly a descendant stands tall outside the frontage of the farmhouse.

The walls of the bedroom that had once been the young Isaac’s still offer evidence of his writings; suggestion in the novel that he was a paper thrift is well supported. After flourishing at the local grammar school in Grantham and later Trinity College, Cambridge, the precocious intellectual famously enjoyed a magnificent academic career there, during which his devotion to astronomy, mathematics, theology and science took on obsessive proportions. Often lonely, he nevertheless cultivated a reputation as a leading light in the Age of Enlightenment. In time, his theories would forever change the world.

While the man’s academic achievements are well documented, the assumption that Newton was devoted to science alone is far from accurate. Indeed, the evidence available suggests that framing of his reputation in such a way is little more than a pretence promulgated by certain elements of the academic community and Newtonian fan base, in the eyes of whom, the very suggestion of any alternative has become a cause of some controversy, if not embarrassment. Evidence collected from a handful of letters penned in Sir Isaac’s tiny handwriting during his life indicates his personal library included no less than 169 books on alchemy and at least one copy of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Complementing this selection were several works by his heroes, including the German physician and alchemist Michael Maier and the Elizabethan statesman and alleged conjurer Dr John Dee. As indicated in The Rosicrucian Prophecy, Dee’s perceived failure to distinguish between magic and mechanic, or science and sorcery, as we do in the modern-day, has long been a cause of consternation, not least because it has hampered the attempts of his supporters in seeing him accredited as a serious scientist. In the view of this author, any argument that Dee or Newton should be penalised for their alchemy is grounded solely in ignorance, not least due to the fact that they were living through a period of transition. Furthermore, one could argue that they were partly responsible for bringing it about in the first place.

Concerning efforts to develop a rounded picture of the historical Newton, one to whom we are most indebted is the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes. A man of business with a love of all things science, Keynes purchased many of Newton’s papers in 1936 before bequeathing them to King’s College a year after the end of the Second World War. In 1942, Keynes made an interesting speech on Newton before the Royal Society Club. Unwilling to settle for the conventional view, he recognised the importance of studying Newton’s life in context, including the academically disturbing aspects.

Where precisely this leaves us concerning a full picture of the man is a far more difficult question to answer. Unquestionably, he was one of history’s rarities; of Newton’s ultimate dreams and intentions, many gaps are still to be filled in. Further to the accusation of paper burnings as mentioned in the book, much of his key work he wrote in code, to save it from falling into the wrong hands. The significance of this is impossible to quantify. While the bathymet and the trip to Holland were undoubtedly a work of fiction, who knows what theories and creations still await our discovery?

Decryption of many of these papers is still to occur.