Best known for his theory of universal gravitation, Isaac Newton was one of the most famous scientists of his time. But he kept some of his ideas private and unseen, including his work on alchemy, the apocalypses, and the great Egyptian pyramid. Some of his notes on these topics have recently been auctioned for £ 378,000.
The notes date to around 1680, when Newton was looking for evidence for his theory of gravity. “Today these fields of study seem disparate – but they did not appear to Newton in the 17th century,” said Gabriel Heaton, manuscript specialist at Sotheby’s. Observer.
Newton believed that the ancient Greeks knew how to correctly measure the circumference of the Earth. In the centuries that followed, humans had lost the knowledge of measure and what the stadium stood for, he thought. One measurement put the circumference at 400,000 stadia, a unit he would need to convert to be useful for his theory of gravity.
Newton also wanted to understand the cubit, the measurement the Egyptians used when building the Great Pyramid. He combed through ancient sources and studied the Pyramidographia of John Greaves (1646), trying to calculate the size of the bricks and the dimensions of the tunnels. The cubit would allow him to rebuild, if only figuratively, the temple of Solomon, the so-called site of the apocalypse.
“An exact knowledge of the architecture and dimensions of the Temple was therefore necessary to correctly interpret the deep and hidden meanings of the Bible,” according to Sotheby’s auction listing for Newton’s Notes.
Newton’s deep interest in alchemy only became widely known well after his death, when the Earl of Portsmouth purchased his papers in 1936. In 2018, his “recipe” for make a philosopher’s stone went to auction. “Newton has been intensely interested in alchemy most of his life,” said James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the Othmer Library of Chemical History. The Washington Post in 2016. “These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words that he wrote with his own hands.”
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The notes sold are actually a little sung. The story is that Newton’s dog lit them when he knocked over a candle – essentially the 17th century version of “the dog ate my alchemy homework”.
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Jenny McGrath is science writer for IGN. She never tweets, but here she is @JennyMcGeez.