The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts

Overview

When Isaac Newton died in 1727 without a will, he left behind a wealth of papers that, when examined, gave his followers and his family a deep sense of unease. Some of what they contained was wildly heretical and alchemically obsessed, hinting at a Newton altogether stranger and less palatable than the one enshrined in Westminster Abbey as the paragon of English rationality. These manuscripts had the potential to undermine not merely Newton's reputation, but that of the scientific method he embodied. They were ...

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The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts

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Overview

When Isaac Newton died in 1727 without a will, he left behind a wealth of papers that, when examined, gave his followers and his family a deep sense of unease. Some of what they contained was wildly heretical and alchemically obsessed, hinting at a Newton altogether stranger and less palatable than the one enshrined in Westminster Abbey as the paragon of English rationality. These manuscripts had the potential to undermine not merely Newton's reputation, but that of the scientific method he embodied. They were immediately suppressed as "unfit to be printed," and, aside from brief, troubling glimpses spread across centuries, the papers would remain hidden from sight for more than seven generations.

In The Newton Papers, Sarah Dry illuminates the tangled history of these private writings over the course of nearly three hundred years, from the long span of Newton's own life into the present day. The writings, on subjects ranging from secret alchemical formulas to impassioned rejections of the Holy Trinity, would eventually come to light as they moved through the hands of relatives, collectors, and scholars. The story of their disappearance, dispersal, and rediscovery is populated by a diverse cast of characters who pursued and possessed the papers, from economist John Maynard Keynes to controversial Jewish Biblical scholar Abraham Yahuda. Dry's captivating narrative moves between these varied personalities, depicting how, as they chased the image of Newton through the thickets of his various obsessions, these men became obsessed themselves with the allure of defining the "true" Newton.

Dry skillfully accounts for the ways with which Newton's pursuers have approached his papers over centuries. Ultimately, The Newton Papers shows how Newton has been made and re-made throughout history by those seeking to reconcile the cosmic contradictions of an extraordinarily complex man.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In this brilliantly crafted and absorbing book, Sarah Dry traces the fate of Newton's manuscripts, through the hands of disciples and enemies, collectors and businessmen, scholars and eccentrics, from familiar heroes of the sciences, including David Brewster, George Stokes, John Maynard Keynes and Albert Einstein, to the lesser-known figures who played such decisive roles in the life of these invaluable documents. The Newton Papers works its appeal both as an indispensable guide to the making of a towering reputation and to the fascinating energies of cunning detective work through the centuries." —Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

"A delightful exploration of Newton's wandering manuscripts' legacy, with an unexpected bonus: a fascinating and insightful account of Sir Isaac's evolving reputation." —Owen Gingerich, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and author of The Book Nobody Read

"Research into Newton's papers has not only transformed our sense of him, but did much to boost the field of history of science. Sarah Dry's book makes us appreciate the twists and turns by which the papers came down to us, and in the process offers a fascinating account of how attitudes about what can be learned from such collections of private, unpublished material have evolved over the centuries." —George E. Smith, Tufts University

"The fascinating saga of Newton's Papers illuminates a battle waged across several centuries over the legacy and image of England's greatest man of science. At stake was evidence, truth, rationality, religious belief, national pride, but also the physical ownership of Newton's material and intellectual remnants. Sarah Dry has crafted a wonderful canvas, stretching across several continents and peopled by myriad scientists and popularizers, collectors and politicians, aristocratic families and impoverished relatives. This is a beautifully written book, sure to please and captivate the connoisseur and novice alike." —Diana Kormos-Buchwald, The Einstein Papers Project, California Institute of Technology

"An engaging narrative of the fortunes of the towering mathematician's Nachlass - his private papers... Dry is to be congratulated for furnishing us with a fresh and readable chronicle of the tortuous route that Newton's manuscript took to being made public - ostensibly in accordance with the wishes of the great man." —Mordechai Feingold, Nature

Library Journal
04/01/2014
Dry (former research fellow, London Sch. of Economics; Curie: A Life) shows a distinct way to decipher the "mean, mad genius" of Isaac Newton, who died in 1727, aged 84, leaving no will—and vast numbers of unorganized unpublished writings. Dry's book is not a biography of the man but of his manifold papers and our evolving understanding of (and sympathies toward) them as they traveled across time and ownership. The documents reveal Newton's interests beyond the scientific and the mathematical, showing such fascinations as religious demystification and alchemy. While conventional biographies of Newton have shown his many and eccentric concerns, Dry's story of how Newton's writings, seemingly calling into question the soundness of mind of their creator, were handled by those charged with their care. The author includes enlightening portraits of the people who sought out Newton's sundry scribbles. Initial readers were scandalized by Newton's unveiled anti-Trinitarianism, but Judaic scholar Abraham Shalom Yahudo, who purchased the material, outlined Newton's actual visions of religious tolerance. Newton's abstruse alchemical writings were likewise largely ignored until economist John Maynard Keynes obtained them at auction in 1935. Dry interweaves her study with the absorbing development of manuscript collecting and cataloging. VERDICT Knowledge of Newtonian mathematics and science is not required to enjoy this work, which will reward students of the history of science or religion as well as readers in antiquarian studies.—Lara Jacobs, Brooklyn
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199951048
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/9/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 172,451
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Dry is the author of Curie: A Life and has also written on epidemics, global health, and the history of meteorology. She is a former research fellow at the London School of Economics and the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Keynes at the sale
1. The Death of Newton
2. The Inheritors
3. Petrifying Newton
4. The Madness of Newton
5. The Meanness of Newton
6. Getting to Know the Knowers
7. Wrangling with Newton
8. Newton Divided
9. English books, American buyers
10. The Dealers
11. The Sotheby Sale
12. The Revealed Newton
13. The Newton Industry
14. The Search for Unity
Epilogue: The Ultimate Value
Notes
Index

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