Book review / Alchemical warfare

ISAAC NEWTON: The Last Sorceror by Michael White Fourth Estate pounds 18.99

Of the fundamental forces of nature, gravity is both the most elusive and the hardest to ignore. Two of the four forces are felt only by quarks and their ilk. We can perceive just a slice of the spectrum of electromagnetic energies, and even that can be shuttered out by the flick of an eyelid. The force of gravity, however, can only be evaded by immersion in water or flight in space, both of which must be undertaken with caution. It also defies the scientists, who have searched the universe high and low without success for the gravitational waves that relativity theory has postulated.

In other words, as the millennium breathes down our necks, gravity remains an occult, or hidden, force. Isaac Newton would have been surprised; not because he would have expected science to have whipped away the veil of mystery, but because he produced a chronology of the future, based on his reading of Scripture, which predicted that Christ would return to the world in 1948. For Newton, methods now known as scientific were just one set of tools on a workbench also furnished with the Holy Bible and the alchemical crucible.

His documentation for the latter takes up a million words, which historians have been reluctant to connect with his scientific treatises. Michael White makes a claim whose boldness contrasts with his thoughtful and considered tone; that Newton's scientific insights were substantially inspired by his alchemical endeavours. Fundamentally, White argues, he conceived the idea of gravitational attraction by making a leap of imagination between the behaviour of substances undergoing alchemical procedures and that of heavenly bodies. That leap was made possible by the notion of "active principles" at work in mercury, antimony and the various other ingredients of alchemy.

White offers few specifics, but his account as a whole supports his contention. Newton believed that to comprehend Nature was to comprehend God, and it is difficult to imagine that so intense a mind would be prepared to keep such a major preoccupation isolated from the rest of its thought. It was not as if it had much else in the way of company. At Cambridge, where he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (and thus Stephen Hawking's predecessor) at the age of 26, he walked a solitary path. The feeling between him and his students was mutual: he often delivered his lectures to an empty room.

The mould was set in his childhood. When his mother remarried after his father's death, she left him behind to be brought up by his grandmother. He subsequently did as he had been done by: the unattractiveness of his character was as profound as his intellect. When his name is linked with that of distinguished peers, it is generally in terms of a bitter dispute. The major figures who got on the wrong side of him were Robert Hooke, who accused him of plagiarism, John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, and the German mathematician Leibniz, who incensed him by working out the basis of calculus independently. Nor did he treat his intimates, such as they were, any better. Twice he failed to support colleagues, one of whom may also have been a lover, when they came under attack for religious beliefs which Newton himself inculcated. His was a faith which permitted duplicity and betrayal.

That may have been partly because his reading of it convinced him that orthodox Christianity had perpetrated a far greater deception in establishing the notion of the Holy Trinity. Newton adhered to Arianism, a doctrine based on the belief that Christ was a divine creature, but not one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Although White records Newton's behaviour rather than examining his moral code, the sorry catalogue suggests that Newton might have been drawn to Arianism because the downgrading of Christ devalued Christ's teachings.

He certainly proved himself disinclined to Christian mercy in the second half of his career. The watershed was a mysterious phase in 1693, when he seems to have undergone a nervous breakdown. After it his philosophical career was largely over, and he entered public life. Here he wielded considerable power, pitilessly. As Master of the Royal Mint, he led the pursuit of coin-clippers, and was unsympathetic to appeals for clemency when they were condemned to death. As President of the Royal Society, he ruled by force and scheme.

Michael White occasionally slips into Vulcan idiom, expressing surprise at the contradiction between Newton's science and his "illogical" beliefs. Yet Newton's paranoia and occult obsessions make him a most contemporary figure. He would have felt at home, too, in a culture where qualified doctors and educated patients believe both in scientific medicine and the magical doctrine that like cures like, in homeopathic solutions so dilute that a dose may not contain a single molecule. He should go back on the banknotes right away.

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific