Scholar Sarah Dry and University of Sussex professor Rob Iliffe visited campus yesterday to present “Paper Newton/Digital Newton,” a talk about their work on the Newton Project, which is seeking to endeavor to put all of Sir Isaac Newton’s published and personal writings in a single online database.
Sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, as part of their Machines People and Politics Research Focus Group, the presentation focused on the history of the Newton papers. It includes the transcriptions of a total of 5.2 million words and, counting Newton’s writings on natural philosophy, theology, mathematics and alchemy.
According to Dry, who received a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Cambridge and is currently writing a book on the history of the Newton papers, the Newton Project has become a worthwhile but difficult endeavor.
“Secrecy was a price Newton paid, in many ways, for maintaining the absolute freedom of thought that he required,” Dry said. “My sense of it is that there was something in him that enjoyed the reworking. So there was a freedom there, as well as a kind of inward turning.”
Essentially, Dry said what Newton left for future scholars was a large amount of unorganized but content-rich studies.
“So what he left is really a mess — it’s a tangle of multiplicity,” Dry said. “There were myriad drafts on myriad subjects composed over 70 years, often undated and largely unsorted. It presented a major challenge to anyone who encountered it.”
Dry began her talk by highlighting three stages of the Newton manuscripts’ passage, from Newton’s death in 1727 through the 20th Century. According to Dry, although most praise of Newton centers on his contributions to mathematics and natural sciences, many of his unpublished ideas also address theology. This study of theology also includes his apparent rejection of the unified Holy Trinity, and scientifically “occult” practices.
As Newton emphasized privacy and kept public correspondence minimal, Dry said these papers confer a much greater understanding of Newton’s private self than was previously known to the general populace.
Iliffe, professor of Intellectual History and History of Science, is the editorial director of the Newton Project and began the current Newton Project in 1998 alongside colleague Scott Mandelbrote. Having presided as an editor through the project’s first online publication in 2002, he said creators of the Newton Project must exercise caution and be sure to not transform the essence of Newton’s writing upon digitalization.
“There’s a paradox with what we’ve got. There’s no question we can understand the man much better than we could 20, 30 [or] 40 years ago,” Iliffe said. “We’re getting closer to this man. We’re sort of resurrecting him. We’re bringing him back to life in some sense by using these very sophisticated tools.”
Iliffe said the vast majority of what Newton wrote was not about natural philosophy, math or optics, nor was it read during his lifetime. In fact, according to Iliffe, much of Newton’s writing was not read until about 20 years ago.
According to Iliffe, Newton also assumed a lesser-known, non-scientific side of himself that can be seen in the first experiments Newton undertook, which “trained” his imagination as he looked at the sun. This training allowed the afterimage of the sun to manifest itself as particles swimming across his vision — a process that is described in the newly digitized works.
While Newton was notoriously private about many of the ideas to be published online, Iliffe said the fact that he did not destroy these manuscripts means they were meant to be read, not indefinitely hidden.
“He did not burn them after his death. To me it’s absolutely crucial that he did not burn the manuscripts upon his death,” Iliffe said. “There would come a time when his writings would be publishable, when they would be accepted by an enlightened group of people. Now we are that people.”
Iliffe said the Newton Project aims to transcribe all the books Newton read in the next five years, along with the rest of his writings.