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The other side of scientific genius

Just who was Sir Isaac Newton? We know him as one of our most celebrated scientists, best-known for his theory of universal gravitation and for discovering calculus. But the popular picture of Newton is one that ignores many of his broader interests, from his heretical religious views to his obsession with alchemy.

An AHRC-funded project is shedding light on the real Isaac Newton by publishing a complete online edition of his writings. The Newton Project was created in 1998, initially to oversee the transcription and publication of his non-scientific writings. A substantial award from the AHRC helped to fund the first stage of the editing process, and the project has expanded significantly since then.

Over 4 million words of text have been encoded for the web since January 2008, more than double that achieved during the first eight years. Agreements with the Royal Society and Cambridge University Library have enabled the publication of all of Newton’s pre-1710 mathematical and scientific correspondence, while three large AHRC Research Grants funded the online edition of the religious texts, most of which are owned by the National Library of Israel. This phase was completed in 2013.

Readers can view texts either in normalised form or with additions and deletions, alongside images of the originals. Scholarly translations of key Latin and Greek texts have been provided and there are over a million words of additional materials accompanying the texts. Overall, it is the largest scholarly project of its kind by a considerable degree.

‘This material sheds enormous light on one of our greatest thinkers,’ says project director Rob Iliffe, Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science at the University of Sussex, who estimates that the project will include around 9 million words of Newton’s writings by the time it is fully completed in 2020. Publishing this material involves far more than a routine transfer from print to web — it is a painstaking process of transcription, collation, editing and analysis.

The project is not only notable for its content but also the technical expertise involved. As an internet resource, it has had to keep up with constant changes and technical developments, and has helped to change perceptions of the internet as well as those of Isaac Newton. ‘We have had to work really hard to keep redesigning it,’ says Iliffe, ‘and we’ve acted as consultants on a number of other projects to help them do what we’re doing’. The technical aspect is key when dealing with such vast amounts of information: ‘Had this been a print project, nobody would have seen anything for about 20 years.’

In 2013, the Newton Project organised a three-day conference jointly with the Royal Society. Held in December, the conference celebrated the completion of the recent AHRC-funded phase as well as the 300th anniversary of the second edition of the ‘Principia Mathematica’. A book based on the conference is planned for the near future. ‘Most of the papers at the conference were completely reliant on the Newton Project for research,’ says Iliffe.

There is still a considerable amount of work left to complete by 2020, including some mathematical tracts, some correspondence and the Mint papers. Newton was a major figure in the Royal Mint for 30 years, as Iliffe explains. ‘He put an immense amount of work into it and used his alchemical expertise as Master of the Mint.’

‘This material is not just of interest for Newton scholars,’ he adds, ‘but for anyone interested in the early modern period, the history of mathematics, or religion in the 17th century.’ This point is echoed by Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. ‘If you want to know what it was like to work as an alchemist in the 17th century or how people read the bible in England in 1680, then this is where you should start,’ he says.

Popular culture tells two stories about Newton, Schaffer explains, presenting him as cold, calculating and rational, or — as featured in countless TV documentaries — as having a dark secret, illuminated through his extensive writings about alchemy, prophecy, scripture and the apocalypse. By bringing together and democratising his papers, the Newton Project provides a much more nuanced picture of Newton.

‘We know him is our greatest scientific genius,’ says Sarah Hutton, Professor in the English department at Aberystwyth, whose research interests include the history of science and of philosophy and who acted as a consultant to the project while it was being set up. ‘The image of Newton which has grown up since the enlightenment, and especially in the 19th century when science and religion were in opposition, is this great rational mind that got rid of the cobwebs of mysterious knowledge like alchemy,’ she says.

‘The real picture was very threatening to people who had investment in Newton as a great scientist – they could gloss over what was assumed or argued to be the ramblings of an old man,’ she continues. ‘The Newton Project shows how much is there, and it shows he was interested in these non-scientific subjects throughout his life.’

Simon Schaffer says the project has helped him challenge the view of Newton as being a loner. ‘I was interested in the idea that he did his work in physics on his own and was solitary and isolated,’ he says. ‘I used the Newton Project to map the sources he was drawing on for his information, which would otherwise have been really time-consuming and difficult – and ended up with a map of the European trade routes of the 1700s.’

‘One of the effects, which I’m already seeing with my students and my own work, is that we’re able to ask much better questions about Newton. Students get very excited by any kind of encounter with originals, however mediated,’ says Schaffer. ‘This project allows you to get as close to the original as you feasibly can. As a Newton scholar, visiting this site feels like encountering the originals – guided by an expert who knows everything. It gives you access to something close to real-time experience of the scholar’s workbench, which is amazing and rare.’

Find out more on the Newton Project website

Article by Anne Wollenberg

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