Book and film reviews

Newton's suitcase

By Federico Di Trocchio

Campus Verlag, Frankfurt / Main 1998, ISBN 3-593-35976-6.

There are tons of academic books of varying quality and level. One of the most interesting and funniest, which is at the same time easy to read, was written by the professor of the history of science at the University of Lecce (Italy), Federico Di Trocchio. As a technical expert, he describes the work of many brilliant outsiders, dismissed by orthodox scientists as “weirdos”. At the same time, Trocchio proves that today the prejudices of modern scientists are defended with the same rigidity as the religious dogmas of the Middle Ages were once. In both camps - science and churches - preachers of personal freedom and tolerance are in short supply.

An excerpt from this book that shows our concept of science in a new light may arouse interest in this book. 

“When Newton died, he left a suitcase that, to the great disappointment of his granddaughter and heiress Catherine Barton, contained nothing but papers: an enormous amount of records, 25 million words in all. Many notes, unsurprisingly, deal with mathematics and physics, but the bulk of who would have ever guessed it, deal with alchemy and theology: page by page on the transformation of the elements, the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life, followed by lengthy interpretations the apocalypse and the prophecies of Daniel - all strictly heretical. This ranges from the rejection of the dogma of the Trinity to the identification of the Catholic Church with the dragon of the Apocalypse and the Pope with the Antichrist.

The executor, Thomas Pellet, wisely recommended keeping the papers hidden. Catherine Barton's daughter, Catherine Conduit, brought it as a dowry to her marriage to John Wallop, the Viscount of Lymington, who valued the papers so much that he buried them in his castle at Hurstbourne Park in North Hampshire, where they remained for 130 years .

One of the few who had the privilege of rummaging through the suitcase was Bishop Samuel Horsley, Editor of the Complete Works of Newton, who shut the lid in shock and spoke to no one about it.

In 1872 the Portsmouth heirs sent the papers to Cambridge, where a notable commission made an accurate inventory, sorted out and bought the records of scientific interest, and sent the remainder back to Hurstbourne.

Since science stubbornly refused them, the remaining papers were entrusted to Sotheby's auction house in 1936 to sell to the highest bidder. The record of alchemy acquired the great economist John Maynard Keynes and donated them to Kings's College, Cambridge. Other manuscripts were sold separately and are now scattered across America and Britain as the property of various institutions. The papers of theological interest that were least valued were acquired by the Arabist Abraham Shalom Yahuda, who unsuccessfully offered them to the universities of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Finally, he left them in a desperate state to the State of Israel. After a few years of indecision, the University of Jerusalem Library took it on in 1969, but no one bothered to study it. The science historian Maurizio Mamiani recently unearthed them.

But was it worth the effort? I would say yes, because the records not only shed new light on the cranky and complex personality of one of mankind's greatest geniuses, but also show how much at the bottom of the scientific enterprise remains even today inevitably magical and esoteric. Newton's alchemical and theological speculations cannot merely be seen, as Richard Westfall, the youngest and most important biographer of Newton, did even today, as a different, unexpected and bizarre but scientifically irrelevant face of a great genius. Today, a different and revolutionary view is emerging: the true Newton is the alchemist and theologian, because from these studies not only the goals of the Philosophia naturalis principia mathematica were born, but also the method of this Bible of modern physics.

The edition of the first, previously unpublished version of the Tratto sull Apocalisse ("Treatise on the Apocalypse"), edited by Mamiani, contributes significantly to this new perspective. It shows that Newton originally worked out the regulae philosophandi, the logical core of his scientific method, in order to interpret the language of the Holy Scriptures and especially the Apocalypse. Only later did he apply it to physics. And this use of the method is not just earlier. Newton was convinced that there is only one truthfulness and that there is only one way to obtain certainty: by mastering the imagery of prophecy.

He found the key of this language in 70 definitions and 16 rules, which in reality, as Mamiani shows, he took from a logic manual by Robert Sanderson that he had read as a student. The scientific method used in physics is nothing more than a simplification and reduction of these rules, because the world of physics represented for Newton the easiest aspect of reality to grasp. More complicated, on the other hand, was chemistry, where he felt a more direct use of the imagery and symbolic language of the prophets was required.

For Newton, then, the scientific method was nothing more than a simplified version of the correct method of interpreting the prophecies: Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures formed the foundation and prerequisite for a certain and complete knowledge of the physical world. Galileo, who risked being burned for claiming otherwise, rest in peace.

This curious interweaving of theology, alchemy, and science may seem interesting to many, but out of date and basically irrelevant to science. But is it really so unimportant that Newton only created his principia after years as a magician, alchemist and theologian? Isn't it rather the case that behind every scientist there is still a Newtonian suitcase? The research of historians suggests just that.

What is surprising about Newton's theological and esoteric texts is the almost pathological demand for certainty and definitive and complete explanations. The great Isaac does not hide the fact that in the sign of the imminent end of the world and the Last Judgment he considers himself the last and final interpreter of the Holy Scriptures.

Similarly, he presented himself in physics as the author of a definite, definitive, and complete explanation of the universe, and for more than 200 years the world of science proved him right. Then came electromagnetism, Einstein, atomic physics and quantum mechanics, and it almost seemed like we had to start all over again. Total certainty has burst into an infinite number of doubts and hypotheses.

Today scientists, taught by history and the philosopher Karl Popper, are convinced that their theories are neither certain nor definitive. But why, then, does Stephen Hawking continue to claim that an all-encompassing theory is in sight and that physics is about to formulate it? Why do theoretical physicists like Paul Davies write books like God and modern physics?

The truth is that science never seems to have accepted the idea that its own is always just the penultimate version of the truth, as Jorge Luis Borges would say. What she secretly strives for is certainty, the most total and final security possible. Even today, therefore, the scientist's smock cannot hide the magician's cloak and the priest's stole. As much as he tries to deny his distant origins, the scientist is always barely noticeable, but permanently connected to religion and magic, the professions of his predecessors. This bond becomes all the more visible the more he tries to convince himself and others that he has found the only possible truth. Precisely when he tries to rationally prove that he has the key to the universe, he is injustice to reason and becomes a magician again, and precisely when he categorically rejects other opinions, he becomes a priest again.

Obviously one must conclude from this that the scientist does not do his job well unless he remains a little magician and a little priest. The reason is almost obvious, and Einstein mentioned it in a well-known essay on science and religion: Without the irrational, the scientist would neither know where to go nor what to look for. As long as computers have no dreams, longings, sympathies, fears, obsessions and paranoia, i.e. all symptoms of irrationality, they will neither create anything nor advance science. Because it is this dark and cloudy source from which human rationality draws in order to come up with increasingly complex images of reality.

Not only can we not evade the irrational, we shouldn't. We have to come to terms with it, to live with it, to put it to good use and merely to avoid falling back into delusion and obscurantism. It is not easy, but it is possible. It is enough to behave like scientists and not like magicians or priests. "