For two centuries after his death in 1727, Isaac Newton was hailed as the supreme scientist, a Monarch of the Age of Reason and the initiator of the scientific and the industrial revolutions, of modernity itself. On one popular list of the hundred most influential people in history, Newton placed No. 2, behind Mohammed but ahead of Jesus Christ. But In 1936 an interesting lot came on the block at Sotheby's in London containing a cache of writings by Newton -- journals and personal notebooks deemed to be "of no scientific value." The winning bidder was the economist John Maynard Keynes. After perusing his purchase, Keynes delivered a somewhat shocking lecture to the Royal Society Club in 1942, on the tercentenary of Newton's birth. "Newton was not the first of the age of reason," Keynes announced. "He was the last of the magicians."

This was meant quite literally, as was a statement expressed by the poet Wordsworth that Newton had a mind "forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone." For the "secret writings" made it clear that during the crucial part of Newton's scientific career -- the two decades between his discovery of the law of gravity and the publication of his masterwork, the "Principia Mathematica" -- his consuming passion was alchemy. Bunkered in his solitary live-in lab at the edge of the fens near Cambridge, Newton indulged in occult literature and strove to cook up the legendary "philosopher's stone" that would convert base metals into gold.

And a penchant for the occult was not Newton's only quirk. He is reported to have laughed just once in his life-when someone asked him what use he saw in Euclid. He took to decorating his rooms in crimson. He stuck a knife behind his eyeball to induce optical effects, nearly blinding himself. He was a Catholic-hating Puritan who secretly subscribed to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Newton was also given to endless feuding. He seems to have had only two romantic attachments, both with younger males, and suffered a paranoiac breakdown after the second came to rupture.

The key to Newton's theory of gravity was the idea that one body could attract another across empty space. To Newton's great contemporaries, Descartes and Leibniz, this notion was medieval and magical; they subscribed exclusively to "mechanical" explanations, in which bodies influenced one another only by a direct series of pushes and pulls.

Grand as it was, Newton's "Principia" left a few loose ends in the celestial scheme. These loose ends though were soon knit together by the so-called Newton of France, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827). In fact, it took Laplace five thick volumes of "Celestial Mechanics" to show that the mutual gravitational tugging among the planets would not cause the solar system to crack up, as Newton feared. When he gave a couple of these volumes to his friend Napoleon shortly before the latter's coup d'etat, the future emperor promised to read them "in the first six months I have free."

Napoleon did glance through the volumes, for he later asked Laplace just where God fit into the perfected Newtonian system. "I had no need of that hypothesis," Laplace famously replied.


Source: The Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, February 19, 1998 pg. A20