Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The private lives of Isaac Newton - history and digitisation of Newton’s private papers

Despite the recent news of Facebook’s undisclosed fiddling with user news feeds and Google’s quick scramble to comply with the recent "right to be forgotten" ruling, commercial sites do not - yet - have a monopoly on digital history. In recent years, large-scale projects have been underway to put online the private papers and letters of many important figures from the past, including scientific ones such as Charles Darwin,Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. What new historical questions does this online material raise? The case of Isaac Newton raises some interesting points about privacy and publication.
Newton left behind a remarkable ten million words of writing, most of it not scientific but religious, historical and alchemical. This material was so private that he shared it with almost no one during his lifetime. Many of the papers contained unorthodox - and, to his contemporaries, deeply heretical - views on Scripture. Roughly a million words were devoted to alchemical investigations that fell outside the realm of science even in Newton’s day. "Scientific" and mathematical writings make up just a third of the total.
Following Newton’s death in 1727, the papers remained largely unread and inaccessible for more than two hundred years. In 1936 the non-scientific material was scattered by auction, and it was only in the 1950s that some of it became accessible to the few historians of science then at work. Today, though the papers are spread between dozens of locations, nearly all of Newton’s religious and alchemical material, and much of the scientific writing, is freely available online.
As a result, errant scraps of paper, secret alchemical notes andobsessively re-copied private religious treatises penned by Newton are now just as easy to access as the contents of his major publications. This is, of course, the point and promise of much digital history today. But it is also one of its perils. As we click effortlessly between this vast range of online documents, it’s easy to lose sight of the boundary between the private and the public, a border of which Newton was exceedingly, almost paranoically, aware.
Newton hated print culture. He preferred to communicate by handwritten manuscripts that were circulated only among carefully vetted friends who would never dare to publicly challenge or defy him. His caution is understandable in relation to his alchemical and theological writings. Some of the latter were too dangerous to be shared with anyone. Instead Newton restricted himself to imaginatively conversing with 3rd- and 4th-century Church Fathers.
But Newton also suppressed many of his greatest mathematical discoveries, with serious repercussions for his scientific reputation. (If he had been quicker to make his work on the calculus known, he could have avoided his acrimonious priority dispute with Leibniz). With his natural philosophy and later optical work, Newton was more open, but only at the importuning of friends and always in carefully controlled ways.
Attending to Newton’s suspicion of print goes some way towards linking his disparate interests. Whether in matters mathematical, scientific, religious or alchemical, Newton always sought a favorable audience and wasn’t prepared to take many risks. As scholars explore the millions of words now available online, it’s worth remembering that each document was written with a particular, often extremely limited, audience in mind. It’s ironic then, that his work can now be read so easily online.
Another irony is that despite years of neglect and some suppression of the papers, Newton’s secrets have never been all that secret. In the 1820s, a Frenchman named Jean-Baptiste Biot uncovered evidence thatNewton had briefly, but undeniably, lost his mind. In the 1840s, glimpses of Newton’s manuscripts made it crystal clear just how important alchemy had been to him, and how much time he had spent on it.
By the 1870s, astronomer John Couch Adams and physicist George Gabriel Stokes faced the full force of Newton’s archive. The thousands of pages documenting Newton’s passionate heresy dismayed them but worse was the damning "sterility" of this religious writing. Yet again, in the1940s, John Maynard Keynes and Biblical scholar Abraham Yahudastruggled to come to terms with what Keynes referred to as "this queer stuff". The recent excavation of Newton’s religious writings shows that they are just as original, if not as acceptable, as his work in the natural sciences.
The mystery - and it is an enduring one, as these recurrent "discoveries"of the secret Newton indicate - is whether the things we keep private or those we broadcast to the world say the most about who we are. That is hard enough for each of us to answer individually. Answering it for someone else, and especially someone like Newton, has occupied generations of scholars, and looks set to do so for a long time to come. The difference is that today, anyone with an interest and an online connection can join the conversation.
Sarah Dry is a writer and independent scholar. She is the author of The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts. She blogs at The Newton Papers and can be found on Twitter at @SarahDry1.