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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.