Isaac Newton was a legend in his own time. His publication of the Principia Mathematica, the mathematical formulae governing the laws of motion, was an event so earthshattering (or, actually, the converse) that all the scientific minds of the era remembered where they were when they first read it. It is hard to exaggerate how important, how towering, he was in the eighteenth century. Even his life-long, bitter, and wrong-minded fight with Leibnitz over who invented calculus did little to tarnish his image. He had revealed the nature of the universe in a way that no one had managed before him - and had revealed an orderly, understandable universe, in which the benevolent hand of God was practically visible. Mathematics became the language of God, and Newton was His interpreter.
What you haven't heard is that the Principia Mathematica was effectively an afterthought, and that the project which dominated Newton's life was effectively swept under the rug for three hundred years.
It was Nicholas Copernicus (1472-1543) who first suggested the heliocentric (sun at the middle) view of the universe. (Actually, an ancient Greek whose name I forget suggested it in antiquity, but he was basically forgotten.) Now, this was dangerously counter to church doctrine, but before the wheels of the Inquisition really got rolling, Copernicus cleverly died, denying them their chance to change his mind by judicious application of metal instruments.
A follower of Copernicus (though born after his death), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), continued the heliocentric train of thought, gathering substantial astronomical data to back up the Copernican model of the universe. All of it with the naked eye. Brahe, not a fan of red-hot pokers himself, published his findings as hypothesis: he merely stated that the heliocentric model of the universe explained things a whole lot better than the geocentric view. But, of course, he wasn't actually advocating it. It was just interesting, that's all. Coupled with his being a favorite of the Holy Roman Emperor, Brahe never had much Inquisition trouble.
Galileo (1564-1642) was the first to significantly make use of telescopes to gather his data. Even more importantly, Galileo used mathematics to model the universe in a way that even Brahe hadn't done. It was Galileo who first used mathematical models as the fundamental explanation of the behavior of the universe, an idea which was to catch fire throughout scientific Europe. Galileo, as you are probably aware, almost caught fire himself, but the Inquisition was of a lenient mind in his case, and he escaped with his life. And became quite famous.
His idea, that you could use mathematics to model nature, was seized upon with zeal all across Europe, not just in Protestant countries, who could give a fig for the Inquisition, but in Catholic countries as well. The Jesuits were great believers in using mathematics to model the world. It was an idea whose time had come, and only required a new generation to apply it.
The 1600s in England were a time of social and religious conflict. Charles the First had been beheaded after years of civil war and long-standing alarm at royal religious practices that seemed frighteningly like popery . For almost a decade the country was run by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, but after his death there was no one with enough stature to take his place, and in 1660 Charles the Second was invited to take the throne of England.
Among the first of Charles' Acts was the Act of Uniformity, under which the correct Church of England doctrines were laid out. People who did not conform with them - non-conformists such as Puritans, Quakers, and the like - were subject to stiff penalties and excluded from public office. This included the pulpit; the Act laid out the approved Anglican doctrine, and required all Anglican ministers to sign their agreement with each part of it. Those who refused were not only tossed out, they were subsequently (1665) forbidden to come within five miles of their former parish.
This caught a lot of non-conformist intellectuals out; they were exiled from their homes and removed from their jobs. Many if not most of them found their way to London. In London you could get a job as a tutor or a clerk, or preach in the growing community of non-conformists in London, and so make ends meet.
These non-conformist intellectuals being swept out of the country and down to London became part of the growing community of intellectual discourse centered there. They got to know each other. To meet. To discuss things. Religion, yes, but these were intellectuals, and they liked to discuss everything, particularly science. Soon they began to have regular meetings. What's more, these meeting became interesting enough that soon even conformists were attending; High Church Tories would come to the coffee houses and mingle with Presbyterians and Quakers to discuss the latest in medicine, astronomy, and natural philosophy.
And among these more-or-less amicable fellows was no less august a personage than the new King, Charles II. Charles developed a great enthusiasm for natural philosophy. It became his favorite hobby, and he would gleefully spend entire days in his palace laboratory conducting whatever experiment had been discussed the previous evening.
Ultimately, he decided to keep these intellectuals closer to him than the coffehouses of London, and in 1662 Charles II chartered the 'Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge' to publish books on various topics. The Society quickly became the group for scientifically-minded individuals of all stripes. Towards the end of the decade, they were joined by a young mathematical genius named Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
Isaac Newton was an orphan. He was raised by an Anglican minister, a man with an interesting distinction. This prelate had been given his sinecure by the government of Charles I. After the Civil War, he managed to keep his post under Cromwell's government. And when Charles II came to the throne, this enterprising cleric once again held on to his church. The way he survived under three such different regimes was obvious: by never telling anyone what he really thought. Conform, toe the line, and you can keep your living. Agree with whatever they tell you. Never say what you really felt; that way lay only anguish and penury.
It was a lesson Isaac took to heart.
Newton's first major work was precisely the application of mathematics to the natural world that everyone was engrossed in. Intrigued by the reflections and refractions he saw while grinding his telescope lenses, Newton embarked on a study of light, which resulted in a lecture course at Cambridge and his treatise on Opticks, written in 1672 but unpublished until 1704, after the death of Robert Hooke, who had quarrelled bitterly with Newton over the work. Newton was by no one's lights an easy man to get along with.
However, his lectures on Optics were widely seen as works of genius. In part, this was because the calculations involved were hideously complex, and Newton had solved them with remarkable dispatch. Obviously he was a mathematical prodigy.
And he was, but one with a secret weapon. Calculus. To deal with the calculations of his early work, Newton had invented calculus, which he called "fluxions". And he didn't tell anybody. Let them think he was a mathematical genius because he could perform such complex transformations, rather than because he had invented a new method to deal with them. He kept it under his vest.
The ghost of his guardian had a firm hand on his shoulder.
At any rate, Newton was, despite his surly nature, becoming relatively famous, and secure in his lectureships and endowments. He was also becoming disillusioned with the behaviour of his contemporaries in natural philosophy, and increasingly withdrew from their disagreeable society. He had done his scientific work, made his name. Now he found a new avenue to turn his prodigial mental energies upon.
Raised by a minister, Newton had always been haunted by the question: why was the Christian church so corrupt? Why did the Reformation, and the internecine bloodshed and the terrible wars and persecutions that it begat, have to happen? Why had the church been so corrupt in the first place? Why were even the Protestant churches breaking down into acrimony and strife? Christianity was ostensibly a religion of love - what had gone wrong?
Well, he was a genius, wasn't he? He'd figure it out. So Newton turned to his Bible, to the original Greek and whatever other source materials he could lay his hands upon. And he made a startling discovery.
All the problems with Christianity could be traced to one thing.
A lie built into the religion by the fourth century church elders. A single lie, that had corrupted and twisted every Christian church that had sprung from it.
And that lie was: Jesus was a God.
Nowhere Newton looked could he find evidence that Jesus was anything but a man. That was the point, that he was a man beloved of God. But the fourth century church had elevated him above other men. Deified him. And from that action all the centuries of evil had flowed. The pope being some sort of spiritual superior, rather than an equal. The ability to behave other than as Jesus had, because you were human and he wasn't. Everything that was rotten in Christendom, Catholic and Protestant alike, was because of this one lie.
This was heresy. To be precise, the Arian heresy, which the Goths and other tribes had practiced and which was stamped out by the Romans and the Franks. And Newton knew it. He couldn't tell anyone. Had this gotten out, he would have been lucky to escape with just losing his positions. More likely, he would have been burned at the stake. So he kept his lips firmly sealed, which of course was his preference anyways.
But, of course, he couldn't leave it alone. After all, this was the salvation of the world he was analyzing. He had to do something - get some glimpse into the future, so that he could set wheels in motion to right this terrible wrong. And when a Christian wants to look into the future, he turns to the book of Revelations. Which is exactly what Newton did. He turned to Revelations, and began using his powers to tease out its meanings, and to create a plan that could save mankind.
A secret plan, of course.
Now, while he was doing all this, life went on. He had to give his lectures, receive visitors, reply to letters - all the aggravating things that got in the way of his true work. But, of course, he couldn't tell anyone about it, so he couldn't refuse when they asked him to dinner or wanted him to write something for them. Because if he said no, they'd want to know why not. He even continued some of his research into natural philosophy, althought not publically. No one could know what he was really working on.
So Newton was pretty grumpy most of the time.
However, he was still a well-respected member of the Society. And one evening, the Society was having a debate upon a point of celestial geometry which was coming to naught when Edmond Halley said "wait, I know who can shed some light on this." So Halley (yes, that Halley) rode up to Cambridge and paid a visit on Newton. His remembrance of that visit is in his autobiography. Halley asked Newton, "if one uses the hypothesis that there is an attraction between two bodies whose strength is equal to the inverse square of the distance between the two bodies, what shape of orbit would that give to planetary bodies?" To which Newton replied, "An ellipsis."
Halley was floored, and asked how Newton knew that so quickly. Newton said that he had already done the calculations; he looked around the office for them, but could not find the papers, so he told Halley (obviously eager to be rid of him) that he would find them and send copies to him.
A week later, and Halley received about ten pages, describing the motion of planetary bodies.
One look, and Halley knew this was a bombshell. He could see, in just those ten pages, the revelation that this work could be.
He also knew that Newton was sure to brush him off if he approached him about writing it all down.
So what Halley did was to write back, saying "very interesting, very interesting," but that he didn't really understand what Newton was discussing in this area of page six. Could he clarify?
And Newton, doubtless infuriated, wrote back seven pages clarifying the point. To which Halley replied "very interesting, very interesting, but could you explain this line here, a touch further?"
Over the course of about two years, Halley teased out of Newton enough work that, when he approached him about publishing it, it was already effectively written, and Newton agreed to compile it into a book. And in 1687, Halley's foreward graced the opening page of the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, the bombshell that forever changed the way man looked at the world.
Newton went on to become wealthy, powerful, and of course incredibly famous. He died in 1727. When going through his effects, some twenty voluminous folios of work on theology were discovered. Highly heretical works on theology.
And the people sighed, and shook their heads, and said how it was sad that such a great mind started to slip in his old age. Happens to everyone, no need to make a fuss. Don't want to hurt his reputation. Just shelve all that over there. And that was that.
It wasn't until the 1950s that scholars actually began to look at Observations on the Prophecies, the works that were of the foremost importance to Newton's heart.
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