EXHIBITS: New Light on Newton

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Science  24 Sep 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5692, pp. 1881
DOI: 10.1126/science.305.5692.1881d

We usually think of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) as a supreme mathematician and scientist who co-invented calculus, dissected a light beam, and quantified gravity. But he was also a “radical Protestant” who saw himself as having been “chosen to interpret prophecy,” says science historian Robert Iliffe of Imperial College in London. Both sides shine through at The Newton Project, an online storehouse of documents that range from his early notebooks to never-before-published commentary on the Book of Revelation.

To plumb Newton's more familiar persona, browse 30 scientific works, including his first published essay on optics and a 1672 design for a new reflecting telescope (left). But Newton wrote more pages about the Bible than about light and gravity. His “Treatise on Revelation” includes rules for deciphering scripture: “to chose those interpretations which are most according to the litterall meaning of the scriptures unles where the tenour & circumstances of the place plainly require an Allegory.” Iliffe says that many scientists know that Newton “was up to something funny”—delving into religion and alchemy. By juxtaposing his scientific and theological writings, the project team hopes to help scholars understand how these strands of thought reflect Newton's worldview.


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