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Isaac Newton - The Last Sorcerer

(Interview on National Public Radio)

DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST: Back in the mid-1600s, some people thought that scientist Isaac Newton was mentally ill. At the time, most people in Europe thought that every day events were controlled by mysterious spirits. Some thought God was pulling all the strings.

But then this rather awkward, ill-tempered mathematician began shattering everybody's world view. He showed that a measurable force called gravity governs how the Earth and planets revolve round the sun, and determines how things work the way they do here on Earth.

Now a new biography paints a fascinating and complex picture of Newton and his times. As biographer Michael White argues, nobody has ever affected the day-to-day lives of ordinary people as much as Newton' s discoveries did.

MICHAEL WHITE, AUTHOR, "ISAAC NEWTON: THE LAST SORCERER": Because he laid down the foundations of the laws of mechanics and dynamics and statics and various other aspects of physics. He also created the calculus.

ZWERDLING: You mean the whole branch of calculus?

WHITE: Yes. He also created many of the laws of optics that we learn about in school, about convex-concave mirrors, about how prisms work through refraction and reflection.

So, he was enormously influential in the world of science. And from those theories, a generation or two later, people began to build steam engines that were based on mechanics and the laws of motion that Newton had come up with. And the Industrial Revolution then happened a generation or two after his life.

And every thing we have today has gradually evolved from the Industrial Revolution.

ZWERDLING: And what's interesting about Newton was that he was a deeply religious man, you write. I mean, profoundly religious, but yet it was his belief in God that drove him to explore science and the laws of gravity.

Now, why?

WHITE: Well, he believed that there was no real difference between science and religion. This is a later construct that we've created in modern times, really.

He thought that he could reach God, or could achieve some sort of closeness to God by studying nature, and he would look anywhere that he could to find those secrets. He wasn't restricted by just mathematics, or just experiment. He would look anywhere. And he even delved into the occult and spent most of his life researching alchemy, which then of course was considered occult.

ZWERDLING: So, Newton looked at the world and said there are forces at work here that you can predict mathematically and, far from disproving the notion of God, it just proved that God has done such marvelous work that something like gravity can exist.

WHITE: Exactly, yes. He was worried, quite rightly, that his ideas would be too radical and that he would get into trouble with the church, for example, and he made it very clear that God was behind the movement of planets, that they moved by a mechanical process that he was unraveling mathematically, but that God set them in motion and God oversaw the whole thing.

ZWERDLING: And the more we read your account of Newton, the more we get to know sides of him that we didn't learn much about school.

For instance, he spent huge amounts of time, you say, dissecting the Bible and other ancient writings, convinced that they contained some sort of code that, if he could only break that code, he could learn the future of the world.

WHITE: That's right. The best example, really, is the dissection and analysis that he had of Solomon's Temple, which he found described in early versions of the Bible in different languages.

And Newton found all the descriptions, and from the descriptions in different languages he constructed a floor plan of what the temple would have looked like. And he believed that the layout of the temple was a code, another form of code, in the way it was designed.

It sounds incredibly wacky to us, but he really believed that Solomon was tapping into some sort of secret knowledge, in direct communication perhaps with God, to know what the future of man would be, and had designed his temple to reflect the possible future of humanity.

ZWERDLING: You describe it as seeming incredibly wacky and strange but the reason I wanted to bring that up is because you keep making the point throughout this book that a lot of people who have written about Newton over the centuries have sort of left out these parts of his work, his dabbling in the -- what some people might call the occult, or his you know, his trying to dissect prophecy because they' re worried that it will take away from his greatness as a mathematician and scientist.

But you argue to the contrary, that it seems to suggest that he was extremely open-minded to all sorts of knowledge.

WHITE: Yes, I think that's absolutely right. Certainly at the time, when he was alive, the earliest biographies of his life and people who he was close to, could never talk about the fact that he was involved with alchemy, because alchemy was actually illegal during his lifetime and was punishable by death.

ZWERDLING: And alchemy we should remind our listeners is...

WHITE: Well, it's the precursor, if you like, or the primitive form of chemistry, but it's not quite the same as chemistry because it involves a very large aspect of psychology and occult connections, that the alchemist believed that were integral to the outcome of the experiment, so that they were -- it was partly an elevation of their own mind. It was almost psychedelic. It was an involvement where they became the experiment, the experiment altered them, and they were as one with it and it was almost a religious process.

ZWERDLING: And of course, the alchemists, such as Isaac Newton himself, would be in their laboratories, with mortar and pestle in hand, trying to turn metals such as mercury and lead into gold.

WHITE: That's right.

ZWERDLING: So, why was this considered to be so dangerous? Why was it illegal?

WHITE: Because it was considered by monarchs and states people of the time to be damaging to the status quo. If an alchemist was able to make gold in large quantities, it would destroy the financial systems of the country.

ZWERDLING: Ah, hah...

WHITE: And so it was only allowed if they were working for them.

ZWERDLING: Oh, interesting. So, Isaac Newton meanwhile is in his own laboratory, thinking about the laws of gravity and trying to turn lead into gold. He never managed, obviously. But you argue that it was that sort of search that actually led him to be able to figure out the laws of gravity.

WHITE: Yes. It's important to note, actually, before I explain that, that he was never trying to make gold per se. He was never one of these alchemists who was trying to make lots of money from gold.

He was hardly interested in money. It was just that was the main motivation of alchemy through the ages. And so, the things that he read about and he researched and then developed himself obviously led along that route and he -- the object at the end was to make the philosopher's stone which was this magical piece of material that could then be mixed with any base metal to turn it into gold.

But it also had other magical properties, or so it was believed, and that was what he was really after. And what my contention is, is that when he was studying the crucible in his laboratory late at night, after years and years of research, he began to notice certain peculiarities of certain chemicals. He noticed that certain chemicals were drawn to each other and attracted to one another. And others were repelled from each other. And we know today that this is to do with -- in part to do with electrostatic attraction, the attraction between ions of the negative and ions of the positive, and other things repel each other for similar reasons.

And this led him to link it with other things that he was thinking about, such as the path of comets, about the way the moon revolves around the Earth, and he actually was on his way, so he believed, to uniting the very small, in the crucible, attraction and repulsion, to the very big that was happening in the cosmos, that he could observe with comets and the moon and so on.

And so he was after this unified theory, which is what Stephen Hawking and people like him are trying to achieve today. But, he didn't have the infrastructure to ever have achieved that.

ZWERDLING: Well, thanks very much for joining us.

WHITE: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

ZWERDLING: Michael White's new book is called "Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer." He's been speaking to us from the BBC studios in Bristol, England.