Willow, Second Floor 01 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Environmental Sciences 15:00 - 17:00

One might expect that our knowledge about a figure as well known and influential as Isaac Newton would be in a settled state after some three hundred years of historical research.  The present session reveals the reality to be quite the contrary.  The world of Newton scholarship is in a state of radical ferment.  Online, digitized editions have over the last two decades brought literally millions of words of original Newtonian material to light, much of it previously available only in manuscript form.  The combined resources made available by The Newton Project (Oxford University) and the Chymistry of Isaac Newton project (Indiana University) have made it possible to compose major new books that substantially revise, and in some instances overturn the existing views on Newton in a variety of fields.  Mordechai Feingold and Jed Buchwald (chair of the session) wrote a foundational new study of Newton’s work on ancient chronology in 2012.  Rob Iliffe’s substantial new book on Newton’s religion appeared in 2017.  William Newman’s forthcoming book on Newton’s alchemy is appearing in 2018.  Alan Shapiro’s ongoing work on Newton’s optics continues to explore the boundaries between the mathematical, physical, and philosophical realms of Newton’s work. Where does all this new research leave us?  Does a single, unified thinker emerge, or rather a polymath who pursued multiple fields without attempting to combine them into a single purview?  This session brings together four leading scholars in the attempt to address that issue.  

Organized by William Newman (Indiana University)

Newton the Alchemist
15:00 - 15:30

The subject of Isaac Newton’s alchemy has raised varying degrees of controversy since the 1936 Sotheby’s auction that made it widely known to the public.  Thanks to the sudden availability of about a million words on alchemy written by the famous physicist over a period of some thirty years, the economist and amateur historian John Maynard Keynes was able to assert that Newton was not the first of the modern scientists, but rather the last of the magicians.  This startling new view led to further questions.  Was Newton’s alchemy a vehicle for his Antitrinitarian Christianity?  Did he derive his belief in immaterial forces from his alchemical research?  Did Newton actually believe that the corpus of mythology descending from the ancient Greeks and Romans consisted of encoded alchemical processes?  And finally, what was he actually doing in the laboratory?  Was he merely reproducing the work of previous alchemists such as the American emigré George Starkey, or was Newton doing original chymical research? Over the last decade and a half, the Chymistry of Isaac Newton (www.chymistry.org) project has been editing Newton’s alchemical writings and attempting to replicate his products in the laboratory.  As a result of this ongoing effort, we are now in a position to address the many questions raised by Newton’s alchemy.  The present talk gives an overview of William Newman’s research on Newton’s long chymical endeavor, which addresses these questions and others.

The Religion and the Science of the Young Isaac Newton
15:30 - 16:00

The nature and extent of Isaac Newton’s religiosity has become a dominant feature of Newtonian scholarship, ever since the opening of the Jerusalem archives. However, whereas Richard Westfall, for example, could acknowledge Newton’s piety, and recognize the earnestness with which he had pursued his theological studies without contending that they necessarily shaped Newton’s science, more recent scholars have insisted on ascribing a single source of inspiration to both domains. My paper will insist on the need to avoid considering Newton to have remained one and the same from birth to death, or that radical religious beliefs had been integral to his scientific activities from the start. Rather, I shall argue, Newton’s theological opinions evolved over time—and later than contemporary scholars assume.

Big Data and Close Reading: Newton's Life and Work Between the Inner Mind and the Outer Limits
16:00 - 16:30

In this talk I assess how the availability of Newton's writings in a searchable, digital format has transformed our capacity to understand and explain his intellectual work. I examine the ways in which the existence of various datasets has allowed modern researchers both to examine Newton's work in unprecedented detail, and also to investigate how his methods and conceptual apparatus in one of his subject-areas (in this case, his theological work) shared similar approaches to those he adopted in other subjects.  Indeed, it is now possible to see much more clearly than before how his research in areas such as theology, alchemy and natural philosophy cohered (or did not).  However, I conclude that in order to do innovative but robust scholarly research of this kind, one needs experience in the use of such digital resources, along with the full toolbox of traditional scholarly skills. One needs also to be aware of the extent to which the Newton that emerges from this new research is shaped, or even determined by these new methods of historical investigation.

Properties, Predictions, and Mathematical Theories in Newton's Optical Investigations
16:30 - 17:00

It has long been debated whether Newton's theory of color and, more generally, his optical investigations are mathematical, but Newton himself always insisted that his theory of color and that of the colors of thin plates are mathematical theories. He based his claim on his ability when utilizing these theories to predict and calculate all the phenomena of interest.  Newton favored mathematical theories in order to avoid invoking speculative physical causes. He repeatedly claimed that his aim was to establish properties of light and not hypothetical physical causes. Newton desired causal theories but would not adopt those causes that he judged to be hypothetical, such as forces or vibrating aethers. I will argue that he believed that his theory of color did not provide a physical cause for the appearance of spectral colors after refraction, but rather an explanation, namely, that the rays are separated by their property of unequal refrangibility. I will describe the nature of these mathematical theories and how they were more a program than full-fledged mathematical physical theories. In contrast to these theories, I will briefly present his theory of colored bodies, which was his only optical theory that was explicitly cast in causal form. Here too calculation and prediction played an important role for Newton.

University of Minnesota
California Institute of Technology
Oxford University
Indiana University
CNRS, Observatory of Paris, SYRTE Laboratory, FRANCE
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
University of Massachusetts Amherst


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