Book review: Rational man seeks philosopher's stone

Isaac Newton: the last sorcerer by Michael White Fourth Estate, pounds 18.99
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We all know a National Curriculum Newton. The son of an illiterate yeoman farmer teaches himself mathematics at Cambridge, then retreats to rural Lincolnshire during the plague years. A falling apple sets him musing on the forces governing matter in motion - the tale was Newton's own. Result: a brilliant new theory of gravitation, embracing earthly orchards and the stars in their courses, bringing its author everlasting acclaim as the greatest scientific mind of all time.

A little more history fleshes out the life without contradicting the schoolteachers. There is more science - a theory of light and the invention of calculus. Gravitation is the key to a mechanical world-picture which is both the ground of modern thought and an incitement to industrial revolution. And the man's 84 years included reform of the Royal Mint, as well as world-class quarrels with the likes of Leibniz - about the credit for calculus - and Robert Hooke - about nearly everything.

Neither of these will do for Michael White. His aim, in this ambitious new biography, is to reimagine the Newton who devoted more time to alchemy than to celestial mechanics, and as much again to biblical interpretation and ancient history . White's Newton sees the cosmos through the eyes of a seeker after truth of the second half of the 17th century, not of some miraculous modern born before his time.

This is news to us because Newton's voluminous writings on alchemy and biblical chronology were never published, and were entirely ignored by later generations. The glories of the Principia and the Optics, and the Newtonian cult of the 18th century, obscured the man who spent long, weary hours tending his crucibles, or trying to reconstruct the floor plans for King Solomon's temple to decode world history. By the Victorian era, the hagiographic tradition was firmly established, and the idea that the founding father of British science was a closet alchemist simply ridiculous.

At first blush, it still seems so. Alchemists are sinister figures, bearded, hollow-eyed men in strange garb intent on transmuting base metals into gold. Newton is our epitome of rationality.

Yet alchemist he was, as expert scrutiny of Newtonian manuscripts has established over the last 30 years. Cue splendid historical wrangles over the significance of this for what we now value about Newton.Very significant indeed, insisted the late American scholar Betty Dobbs, who spent her life poring over alchemical writings in Newton's hand. Not particularly significant, answered traditionalists such as Rupert Hall. His 1990 biography of Newton devotes much space to arguing with Dobbs, and sees Newton's interest in the transformations of matter as more chemical than alchemical.

White sides firmly with Dobbs, as his subtitle declares. Not only was the great mathematician seeking the philosopher's stone, but pondering attraction and repulsion at the bottom of his crucible was crucial for his concept of gravitation. It sounds plausible, though we can never really know. What we do know is that Newton had an overpowering urge to bring together truths from different realms in the service of the obscure variant of Unitarian christianity to which his historical studies led him. His dazzling intellect and formidable powers of concentration were applied just as relentlessly to occult knowledge as to what we regard as science.

None of this diminishes the Principia, or contradicts the verdict of Edmund Halley that the world "will pride itself to have a subject capable of penetrating so far into the abstrusest secrets of Nature, and exalting reason to so sublime a pitch by this utmost effort of the mind". But after 300 years, we are now ready to see that mind in a broader context.

White skillfully depicts a Newton who is as impressive as ever, but even more intriguing. He is a reliable guide through many arcane topics, though he allows himself a few too many of the cliches of popular biography. The obsessive, hypochondriac Newton who shunned his fellows and "subconsciously" believed himself superhuman dominates the book, but becomes unconvincing when we encounter the successful man of affairs he chose to become in the second half of his life. And White's careful attention to the scholarly sources does not prevent a few wild speculations about lost texts to strengthen his case for Newton the alchemist.

However, he certainly achieves his main aim of producing a very readable account of the life and thought of the most influential Englishman in history, and one which is true to the range of his thought. After White's book, National Curriculum Newton will never be the same again.