- Newton's appetite for learning far transcended what we would nowadays call science. He devoted a larger amount of time to studies in alchemy and theology than physics.
- Newton saw the Universe as a manifestation of the infinite power of God, and science was a portal into God's mind.
- Wouldn't science be more appealing if students learned that scientific creativity doesn’t emerge from a vacuum and, instead, that science has deep ties with philosophy and religion?
It is hard to think of a name that has been more influential in science than Isaac Newton. Sure, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Darwin, Curie, and [add your favorite here] are all spectacular scientists and deserve the immortality they enjoy. But what makes Newton unique is that his science, as is the case for Darwin’s, is a science we can relate to in our everyday life, as opposed to being either far away in the realm of atoms (quantum physics) or at speeds we are not able to perceive directly (theory of relativity).
Isaac Newton formulated the laws of mechanics and the law of universal gravity, the laws we use to describe so many of the phenomena we experience, from apples falling and rockets taking off to Mars to the colors of the rainbow. As a bonus, he also invented the reflector telescope that we use to extend our vision into the Universe. And, of course, Newton co-invented calculus, without which there would be no physics or engineering.
Isaac Newton the weirdo
I remember talking to a friend of mine about my admiration for Newton. He didn’t agree. “Yes, the science is great. But what a weirdo! He had no friends, never married, or even had a relationship. I can’t get excited about the man as you do.”
Well, to get excited about Newton’s social eccentricities, you need to go beyond just the science. You need to see the person as a whole. You need to go back to England of the 1660s, when a 23-year-old Newton spent two years at his mom’s farm in Woolsthorpe, hiding from an outbreak of the plague that took hold of Cambridge, where he was studying. (We wrote about that here.) This is when Newton took science by storm and set the roots of mechanics and gravity in motion. And he started to look at other ways of knowing, complementary to his science.
Isaac Newton the mystic
To focus on Newton’s science in order to understand Newton simply won’t do. His appetite for learning far transcended what we would nowadays call science. He devoted a larger amount of time to studies in alchemy and theology, dealing with arcane questions which ranged from the transmutation of elements to biblical chronology and the nature of the Christian Trinity.
Although we correctly learn in schools that Newtonian physics is a model of pure rationality, we would dishonor Newton’s memory if we overlooked the crucial role God plays in his Universe. It may be true that to understand Newton’s scientific achievements we can neglect the more metaphysical side of his personality. But that is only half the story — for Newton saw the Universe as a manifestation of the infinite power of God. It is no exaggeration to say that his life was one long search for God, one long search for communion with the Divine Intelligence, which Newton believed endowed the Universe with the beauty and order manifest in nature. His science was a product of this belief, an expression of his rational mysticism, a bridge between the human and the Divine.
We can easily find the influence of alchemy and theology in Newton’s writings. For example, in Book III of The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the book that explained Newton’s new mechanics and universal gravity to the world, Newton speculates on the generation, decay, and regeneration of cosmic matter. Newton’s lyrical vision of matter’s recycling through stars, planets, and comets blended his mechanical science and alchemical explorations. Gravity, the great unifier, the physical expression of God in the world, orchestrated change and transformation throughout the cosmos:
The vapors which arise from the sun, the fixed stars, and the tails
of comets, may meet at last with, and fall into, the atmospheres
of planets by their gravity, and there be condensed and turned into
water and humid spirits; and from thence, by slow heat, pass
gradually into the form of salts, and sulphurs, and tinctures,
and mud, and clay, and sand, and stones, and coral, and other
Newton’s description of a constant ebbing and flowing of heavenly matter expresses an organic, alchemical vision of the world. Wandering comets are the messengers responsible for transferring materials from stars to planets, where they undergo the chemical transformations into the substances that support life. Stellar and cometary “vapors” cooked over “slow heat” (a reference to the slow burning of alchemical experiments) generates “terrestrial substances.” Newton’s alchemically inspired vision for a mechanistic Universe suggests that life elsewhere is scientifically possible.
The return of spooky action at a distance
Something bothered him in his theory, though, the notion of “action-at-a-distance” — namely, that gravity can act through vast distances in a mysterious way, like the Sun attracting the planets (and the planets the Sun). How could that be? Newton didn’t know, and he famously wrote in the Principia that he “feigned no hypothesis.” He knew he couldn’t prove scientifically what he truly believed was going on: God’s influence in the world. But a few years after publishing the Principia, he exchanged letters with a theologian from Oxford, Richard Bentley. And there he opened up:
Tis unconceivable that inanimate brute matter should (without the mediation of something else which is not material) operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact… That gravity should be innate inherent and essential to matter so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else by and through which their action or force may be conveyed from one another is to me so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it. Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial is a question I have left to the consideration of my readers.
Material or immaterial? Newton left the decision to his readers, but he also placed God in his cosmos as an essential player, a kind of celestial mechanic that ensures the balance of the planets and comets and stars against the constant pulling of gravity. He said so at the end of the Principia, in the General Scholium:
This most beautiful system of sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being… Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing.
Science as a portal to God’s mind
Isaac Newton’s cosmos was a product of divine intelligence and, even more, a stage where this intelligence constantly acts. To Newton, science was a portal to God’s mind, a bridge between humans and the Divine. It is no wonder that the great economist and historian of ideas John Maynard Keynes wrote that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Keynes continues: “Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood.”
Newton, a name that represents the quintessential rationalist was, in fact, a rational mystic, who believed that science was akin to a religious practice, a meeting with God’s mind.
Now, I ask: Wouldn’t the study of physics from high school onward be much more appealing if students learned that scientific creativity doesn’t emerge from a vacuum and, instead, that science has deep ties with philosophy and religion? Sure, every story is different, but to add these extra dimensions to the narrative humanizes science and makes it more compelling and accessible. The equations are essential. But they don’t maketh the man.