A New Newton


It was a strange juxtaposition. A big metal box filled with the manuscripts of Isaac Newton, hidden by Newton during his lifetime and unread for two hundred years afterward, and a fat young man with red hair and khaki shorts, strutting on the stage at meetings of the British Union of Fascists. The big metal box was packed up by Newton in 1696, when he left Cambridge and moved to London. He was leaving forever the life of intense and solitary study that he had pursued in Cambridge for thirty-five years, and entering the role of public figure and patron saint of the Age of Enlightenment that he pursued in London for thirty years more. The fat young man was Lord Lymington, Earl of Portsmouth. He was a direct descendant of Catherine Barton, the niece of Newton’s who kept house for him in London and inherited his papers when he died. Catherine Barton’s daughter Kitty married an Earl of Portsmouth and became an ancestor of the fat young man. And so the fat young man came into possession of the big metal box. When he came into possession of the box, the papers inside were still intact.

When I was a boy in high school during World War II, I met the fat young man and disliked him intensely. I was helping England to survive by bringing in the harvest, at a time when the grown-ups who normally worked on the farms had been called up to serve in the army. The high school kids worked hard in the fields and enjoyed taking a holiday from Latin and mathematics. But the fat young man owned the land where we were working, and he came and lectured us about blood and soil and the mystical virtues of the open-air life. He had visited Germany, where his friend Adolf Hitler had organized the schoolkids to work on the land in a movement that he called Kraft durch Freude, in English “Strength through Joy.” In Germany the kids had an accordionneuse, a woman with an accordion who played music to them all day long and kept them working in the right rhythm. The fat young man said he would find an accordionneuse for us too. Then we would have strength through joy and we would be able to work much better. Fortunately the accordionneuse never showed up, and we continued to work in our own rhythm. We knew that the fat young man was second in command to Sir Oswald Moseley in the British Union of Fascists, and if his friend Adolf had successfully invaded England he would probably have been our Gauleiter. Being well-brought-up English children, we listened to the fat young man politely and never showed him our contempt.

When I was bringing in the harvest and listening to the fat young man, I did not know that he had been the owner of the Newton papers. I learned this two years later from the economist John Maynard Keynes. I was then a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, while Keynes was a fellow of King’s College. Keynes was chief economic adviser to the British government and largely responsible for keeping the British economy afloat at a time when more than half of our gross national product, and all of our foreign exchange, was being spent on the war. He was wearing himself out, flying back and forth between London and Washington and dealing with one financial crisis after another. He never had time to pursue his hobby, the careful scholarly reading of the Newton papers. I was lucky to be present at one of his rare appearances in Cambridge, when he gave a lecture at Trinity College with the title, “Newton, the Man.”1 The audience was small, and we huddled around the exhausted figure of Keynes as he lay in a reclining chair in a cold, dark room and talked quietly about the big metal box and its contents. Four years later he died of heart failure, precipitated by overwork and the hardships of crossing the Atlantic repeatedly in slow propeller-driven airplanes under wartime conditions.

Keynes described to us how the fat young man, in need of cash to finance the British Union of Fascists in 1936, had brought the big metal box to Sotheby’s in London and sold the contents at auction in 329 separate lots. Keynes had warning of the sale only a few days before it happened. He attended the auction and bought as many of the papers as he could with money out of his own pocket. “Disturbed by this impiety,” he told us, “I managed gradually to reassemble about half of them, including nearly the whole of the biographical portion, in order to bring them to Cambridge which I hope they will never leave. The greater part of the rest were snatched out of my reach by a syndicate which hoped to sell them at a high price, probably in America.” The papers that he rescued are now preserved in the King’s College library. The rest of them were sold piecemeal to various collectors and dispersed all over the world. Even as a salesman of irreplaceable antiquities, the fat young man was incompetent. As a reward for his act of gross impiety, he reaped a total of only £9,000.

In his lecture, Keynes described the contents of the box that he examined as best he could during the turmoil of the sale and afterward. Among the papers that he rescued was a firsthand description of Newton, written by Newton’s cousin Humphrey, who worked for him as a secretary for five years. Those five years included the two that Newton spent writing his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in English Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the masterpiece that set the course of the physical sciences for the next two hundred years. The Principia appeared in three volumes. The first two established the laws of physics and the methods of calculating the consequences of the laws. The third volume begins with Newton’s proud statement: “It remains that, from the same principles, I now demonstrate the frame of the system of the world.” The third volume analyzes the diverse phenomena of the real world, the motions of sun and moon, planets, satellites, and comets, the precession of the earth’s axis of rotation, and the rise and fall of tides, and shows how they all occur precisely as his principles predict. The manuscript of the Principia, which Newton’s friend Edmond Halley took with him to London in 1686 to be published, is in Humphrey Newton’s hand.

Humphrey’s description of Newton’s life in Cambridge was written many years later. Newton spent much of his time in the elaboratory, a wooden building in his garden in which he did alchemical experiments. Here is Humphrey writing about Newton as an alchemist:

Especially at spring and fall of the leaf, at which times he used to imploy about six weeks in his Elaboratory, the fire scarcely going out either night or day, he sitting up one night, as I did another, till he had finished his chymical experiments, in the performances of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact. What his aim might be, I was not able to penetrate into, but his pains, his diligence at those set times, made me think, he aimed at something beyond the reach of human art and industry.

In his talk at Trinity College, Keynes quoted Humphrey and then added his own interpretation:

Newton was clearly an unbridled addict…. He was almost entirely concerned, not in serious experiment, but in trying to read the riddle of tradition, to find meaning in cryptic verses, to imitate the alleged but largely imaginary experiments of the initiates of past centuries. Newton has left behind him a vast mass of records of these studies. I believe that the greater part are translations and copies made by him of existing books and manuscripts. But there are also extensive records of experiments…. In these mixed and extraordinary studies, with one foot in the Middle Ages, and one foot treading a path for modern science, Newton spent the first phase of his life, the period of life in Trinity when he did all his real work…. And when the turn in his life came and he put his books of magic back into the box, it was easy for him to drop the seventeenth century behind him and to evolve into the eighteenth-century figure which is the traditional Newton…. And he looked very seldom, I expect, into the chest where, when he left Cambridge, he had packed all the evidences of what had occupied and so absorbed his intense and flaming spirit in his rooms and his garden and the elaboratory between the Great Gate and Chapel.

During the sixty years since Keynes spoke in Cambridge, the papers that were hidden in the big metal box have given rise to a literature that is even more voluminous. The collected mathematical papers of Newton have been published in eight large volumes, the collected correspondence in seven. The standard biography of Newton by Richard Westfall, with the title Never at Rest,2 fills more than nine hundred pages. Large numbers of more specialized books and papers have been devoted to Newton’s mathematics, optics, physics, alchemy, and theology, to his scientific quarrels, his religious beliefs, and his later official career as Master of the Mint.

Now comes a new biography by James Gleick. For the casual reader with a serious interest in Newton’s life and work, I recommend Gleick’s biography as an excellent place to start. It has three important virtues. It is accurate, it is readable, and it is short. It is roughly one quarter of the length of Westfall’s book, and still gives a well-rounded and fairly complete picture of Newton and his ideas. To take the subject of alchemy as an example, Newton’s alchemical activities occupy forty-six pages of Westfall (half each of chapters 8 and 9), eight pages of Gleick (chapter 9 with the title “All Things Are Corruptible”). Gleick’s account is more sharply focused on the essential question, how it was possible for a mind as sharp and logical as Newton’s to search for nature’s secrets in ancient alchemical manipulations as well as in physical laws. Gleick’s answer to this question:

It was God who breathed life into matter and inspired its many textures and processes…. Rather than turn away from what he could not explain, he plunged in more deeply…. There were forces in nature that he would not be able to understand mechanically, in terms of colliding billiard balls or swirling vortices. They were vital, vegetable, sexual forces—invisible forces of spirit and attraction. Later, it had been Newton, more than any other philosopher, who effectively purged science of the need to resort to such mystical qualities. For now, he needed them.

Keynes never knew that two other scholarly collectors besides himself were slowly reassembling the papers that were scattered in 1936. The other two were Roger Ward Babson, an American stock-market analyst, and A.S. Yahuda, an Orientalist born in the Middle East who ended up at Yale University. It was fortunate that these three collectors had interests that did not strongly overlap. Keynes was primarily interested in papers concerned with alchemy, Babson in papers concerned with gravitation, Yahuda in papers concerned with theology. The Babson collection is now in the Babson College Library at Wellesley, Massachusetts; the Yahuda collection is in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. Contrary to Keynes’s fears, the papers that went to America are in collections open to scholars, while the few papers that remain inaccessible are mostly in France and Switzerland.

The Yahuda collection gives us an intimate view of Newton’s religious thinking, which was as intense and idiosyncratic as his thinking about alchemy and mathematical physics. He saw clearly that there is no firm basis in scripture for the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He was a Unitarian, deducing from the evidence of scripture that God the Father reigns alone. There is one God and not three. Jesus is his son and the Holy Spirit is his mouthpiece, but neither of them is his equal. All through his life, Newton was searching for truth in ancient writings as well as in the study of nature. He considered his Unitarian theology to be as firmly based as his mathematical physics.

But there was a practical difference between physics and theology. He was free to say whatever he liked about physics, but not about theology. Cambridge University and Trinity College were religious foundations with strict standards of orthodoxy. Newton could not have held his positions as professor at the university and fellow of the college if his heretical views had been publicly known. Fortunately, King Charles II, a man of liberal temperament, signed a special dispensation that excused Newton from the usual rule that university professors must be priests of the Anglican Church. To become a priest, Newton would have had to affirm his belief in the orthodox Trinitarian doctrine of the Church, and this he could never have done. In effect, the King was adopting a policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and Newton carried out his side of the bargain by keeping his theological writings hidden in the big metal box.

Gleick describes Newton’s theology in an excellent short chapter with the title “Heresy, Blasphemy, I dolatry,” but he does not share Newton’s enthusiasm for the fine points of biblical scholarship. He quotes with approval Westfall’s judgment that The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, a book written by Newton in his old age and published after his death, is “a work of colossal tedium.” Anyone who would like a more sympathetic and more detailed account of Newton’s religious studies, based on the Yahuda papers in Jerusalem, should read the book The Religion of Isaac Newton by Frank Manuel.3 Manuel’s book is, so far as I know, the only important work about Newton that does not appear in Gleick’s bibliography.


For several years after the publication of the Principia in 1687, Newton was deeply involved in national politics. The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 was a turning point in English constitutional history, as important for England as the revolution of 1776 was for America. In 1688 the country rose in rebellion against King James II, who stood for the divine right of kings, and drove him into exile. King William III was invited to come over from Holland to take his place. The essential part of the deal was that William would be a constitutional monarch, subject to the law of the land as determined by the English Parliament.

When James II provoked the constitutional crisis of 1687, Newton was a member of Parliament representing Cambridge University. The independence of the university was directly threatened by the King, who took action to remove Protestants and install Catholics in the university administration. Newton took a firm line against the King. “Be courageous therefore and steady to the laws,” he wrote in a memorandum to the university. “If one P[apist] be a Master you may have a hundred…. An honest Courage in these matters will secure all, having Law on our sides.” After successfully resisting King James, Newton urged the university to accept allegiance to King William so long as King William upheld the law of the land. In a letter to a friend in 1689, Newton described the agreement that the leaders of the university had accepted. In this letter he expressed, with his usual clarity, the fundamental principles of constitutional government:

  1. Fidelity & Allegiance sworn to the King, is only such a Fidelity & Obedience as is due to him by the law of the Land. For were that Faith and Allegiance more than what the law requires, we should swear ourselves slaves & the King absolute, whereas by the Law we are Free men notwithstanding those oaths. 2. When therefore the obligation by the law to Fidelity and Allegiance ceases, that by the oath also ceases.

Sarah Jones Nelson, a colleague of mine in Princeton, recently discovered in the archives of Magdalen College, Oxford, another document either in Newton’s hand or in that of a scribe (who was hired for the purpose of working quickly). It was put into the archive by the philologist R.W. Chapman, who had bought it in the auction at Sotheby’s in 1936, but nobody else seems to have been aware of its existence. Internal evidence shows that it was written in 1687 or 1688. It outlines the legal case against King James II, and also suggests the relationships between scientific knowledge, law, and morality.

It appears that at that time Newton was searching for a common foundation for physical law and moral law, seeing both kinds of law as manifestations of the same divine wisdom. While he was attending the sessions of Parliament in London, he met the philosopher John Locke, the great protagonist of government by consent of the governed. Locke shared his interests, in theology as well as in politics. He was, like Newton, a closet Unitarian. In a letter to another friend, Locke remarks, “Mr. Newton is really a very valuable man, not only for his wonderful skill in mathematics, but in divinity too, and his great knowledge in the Scriptures, wherein I know few his equals.” According to Sarah Jones Nel- son, the Magdalen manuscript contains ideas, concerning the moral and legal theory of civil disobedience, which reappear in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke’s treatise, which was published in 1690, is one of the classic texts of constitutional law. Here we see that the man who became, in Keynes’s words, “Sage and Monarch of the Age of Reason…the eighteenth-century Sir Isaac, so remote from the child magician born in the first half of the seventeenth century,” was also one of the architects of our civil liberties. And for Newton, the struggle for political freedom was never separated from the struggle for a true understanding of God.

The best and most original part of Gleick’s book is the description of the young Newton in his first five chapters. Gleick’s account is based on a detailed study of the manuscript notebooks that Newton kept as a student in Cambridge, recording his many false starts and digressions as he groped his way toward an understanding of the laws of nature. In these notebooks we see him, not yet possessing words to express the concepts such as force and momentum that would allow him to formulate the laws precisely, and not yet possessing the mathematical tools of differential and integral calculus that would allow him to deduce the consequences of the laws. To reach his fundamental insight that the laws of nature can be expressed as differential equations, he had to simultaneously guess the laws and invent the mathematical language of calculus in which to express them. The notebooks record his successes and failures as they happened, not reinterpreted in the light of later discoveries.

It is lucky for us that Newton was working alone, without friends or collaborators, sharing his intellectual adventures with nobody. Instead of telling his thoughts to friends, he told them to his notebooks. In the notebooks we see the slow dawning of his understanding, and then the rapid succession of discoveries leading up to the breakthrough of 1665 and 1666, the plague years, when Newton left Cambridge to escape the plague and stayed at his home in Woolsthorpe. At Woolsthorpe, at the age of twenty-four, he put together the pieces and assembled his new vision of the universe. The story of these five years, from Newton’s arrival at Cambridge as a student in 1661 to his solitary triumph at Woolsthorpe in 1666, is told more clearly by Gleick than by Westfall. Gleick has gone back to the original notebooks and brought them to life.

In 1667 Newton became a fellow of Trinity College and resumed his solitary existence in Cambridge. He bought apparatus and materials for the alchemical experiments that occupied much of his time for the next twenty years. He spoke to nobody about his alchemical studies, and to almost nobody about his discoveries in physics. For him, alchemy and physics and theology were parts of a single enterprise, three aspects of a single search for knowledge that God had placed within his grasp. Since he was not free to talk about his theology, he saw no reason why he should talk about his alchemy or his physics. He might never have talked about his physics, if his friend Halley had not come to Cambridge in 1684 begging him to publish what he knew. Then, once he had started writing down his physical discoveries in logical sequence, he did not stop until he had finished the three volumes of the Principia.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the birth of modern science had been proclaimed by two great philosophers, Francis Bacon in England and René Descartes in France. Bacon and Descartes had very different visions of how science should be pursued. According to Bacon, scientists should experiment freely and collect facts about everything in the world, until in due time the accumulation of facts would make clear the way nature behaves. From the storehouse of accumulated facts, scientists would induce the laws of nature. According to Descartes, scientists should deduce the laws of nature by pure reason, starting from the axioms of mathematics and our knowledge of the existence of God. Experiments needed to be done only to verify that the logical deduction of the laws of nature was correct. During the seventeenth century, science in Eng- land tended to follow the Baconian path, with the Royal Society in London collecting facts about everything from two-headed calves to rainstorms of frogs and fish. Science in France followed the Cartesian path, and was dominated by Descartes’s theory of vortices. The Car- tesian vortices were supposed to fill space on earth and in the heavens, pushing celestial objects along their orbits in the sky. At the time when Newton made his discoveries, the learned men of England were mostly doing science in the empirical style of Bacon, but most of them believed in the Cartesian theory of vortices because it was the only theory available.

Newton himself was at heart a Cartesian, reaching his insights into the nature of things by pure thought as Descartes intended. When he came to write the Principia, he wrote it in Cartesian style, stating his conclusions in the form of propositions and theorems, and using the methods of pure geometry to prove them. But unlike Descartes, he was himself an experimenter and understood the importance of precise experiments for testing theories. So, in the Principia, he brilliantly succeeded in using the Cartesian method to demolish the Cartesian theory. In the first two volumes he built a grand edifice of mathematics, more coherent than anything Descartes had to offer, and then in the third volume he delivered the coup de grâce, demonstrating with an abundance of observational facts that nature danced to his tune. As soon as the Principia was published and widely circulated, the Cartesian vortices were dead.

Newton was a skillful fighter and always played to win. He enjoyed his victories over Descartes and King James. He also enjoyed victories over Robert Hooke, who claimed to have anticipated him in the discovery of the law of universal gravitation, and over Gottfried Leibniz, who claimed to have anticipated him in the discovery of calculus. As Master of the Mint, he zealously prosecuted counterfeiters of the coinage, rejected their pleas for clemency, and made sure they were hanged. He went out of his way not only to defeat his opponents, but to crush and humiliate them. I imagine him now, wherever he may be in the spiritual realms of heaven or hell, enjoying his final victory over Lord Lymington. Lord Lymington attempted to profit at Newton’s expense, scattering his papers to the winds for a paltry £9,000. The final result of Lord Lymington’s impiety is that he is remembered as a Judas who betrayed his master, while Newton’s papers are preserved and studied by a multitude of scholars as never before.

  1. 1

    John M. Keynes, “Newton, the Man,” pp. 27–34 in Newton Tercentenary Celebrations (Royal Society of London, Cambridge University Press, 1947). Since J.M. Keynes died in 1946, his lecture was read at the tercentenary celebrations by his brother Geoffrey Keynes.

  2. 2

    Cambridge University Press, 1983.

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1974.