When Isaac Newton died at 85 without a will on March 20, 1727, he left a mass of disorganized papers—upwards of 8 million words—that presented an immediate challenge to his heirs. Most of these writings, on subjects ranging from secret alchemical formulas to impassioned rejections of the Holy Trinity to notes and calculations on his core discoveries in calculus, universal gravitation, and optics, were summarily dismissed by his heirs as “not fit to be printed.” Rabidly heretical, alchemically obsessed, and possibly even mad, the Newton presented in these papers threatened to undermine not just his personal reputation but the status of science itself. As a result, the private papers of the world’s greatest scientist remained hidden to all but a select few for over two hundred years.
In The Newton Papers, I divulge the story of how this secret archive finally came to light—and the complex and contradictory man it revealed. Covering a broad swath of history, Dry explores who controlled Newton’s legacy, who helped uncover him, and what, finally, we know about him today, nearly three hundred years after his death. The Newton Papers presents the eclectic group of collectors, scholars, and scientists who were motivated to track down and collect Newton’s private thoughts and obsessions, many of whom led extraordinary lives themselves—from economist John Maynard Keynes to Abraham Yahuda, a friend of Albert Einstein and key figure in the founding of Israel. The 300-year history of the disappearance, dispersal and eventual rediscovery of Newton’s papers exposes how Newton has been made, and re-made, at the hands of unique and idiosyncratic individuals, reflecting the changing status of science over the centuries.
A riveting and untold story, The Newton Papers reveals a man altogether stranger and more complicated than the genius of legend.
Reviews, articles and interviews
A review in the Times Literary Supplement by Arnold Hunt (7 Nov 2014): “What could have been a narrow study of changing fashions in book collecting becomes, in Dry’s skillful telling of the tale, a study of Newton’s evolving reputation and the rise of a new academic discipline, the history of science.” Dry “succeeds in making the dispersal of an archive seems an event as momentous as Philip Larkin’s lines on death, when ‘the bits that were you/Start speeding away from each other forever.’ ”
A full-length review in The Times Higher Education Supplement, by Robyn Arianrhod (9 Oct 2014).
And a short review in The Times Higher Education Supplement, by Graham Farmelo (11 Sept 2014) in which he describes it as ‘pure joy.’
Two reviews of the book have been published in Italian newspapers, one in Corriere de la sera (5 Oct 2014) which identifies a ‘touch of Borges’ in the odyssey of the papers, the other in Il Sole 24 Ore (2 Nov 2014), which begins with the lovely phrase ‘Un visconte squattrinato’ to describe the hard-up Earl who ultimately sold the papers.
The audio recording of my talk ‘The Private Life of Isaac Newton,’ given at the Royal Society during its Open House weekend (20 September 2014).
Review by Stuart Kelly in Scotland on Sunday (20 July 2014): The Newton Papers
‘Dry tracks the pages, not the mind of Newton, and finds ample anecdotes along the way to make this bibliographic thriller a delight to read.’
My guest post on The H Word blog at the Guardian (8 July 2014): The Private Lives of Isaac Newton
‘As we click effortlessly between this vast range of online documents, it’s easy to lose sight of the boundary between the private and the public, a border of which Newton was exceedingly, almost paranoically, aware.’
My article in the 2014 Gates Cambridge Scholar magazine (7 July 2014): Newton’s Private Ink
‘Newton’s proud words–“with this ink new made I wrote this”–remain dark and vivid some 350 years after he wrote them.’
My guest post on OUPblog (6 July 2014): True or False? Ten Myths about Isaac Newton
‘Myth 5: Newton found secret numerological codes in the Bible.’
My guest post on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Huffington Post blog (23 June 2014): The Public and Private Isaac Newton
‘Newton’s attitude towards publication is one thread that can be used to stitch the archive together, should we wish to do so.’
Review in The Economist (20 June 2014): Magician’s brain
‘Sarah Dry’s engaging book, “The Newton Papers”, traces what happened to Newton’s unpublished manuscripts after his death…The truth is that Newton was very much a man of his time.’
Review in the Literary Review (1 June 2014): Last of the Magicians
David Bodanis called The Newton Papers ‘a fascinating tale.’
Review in the Wall Street Journal (23 May 2014): A Reputation in Constant Motion
Author Q and A at Wired (14 May 2014): The Strange, Secret History of Isaac Newton’s Papers
“You will feel overwhelmed and confused.”
Extract at Tablet (5 May 2014): Saving Isaac Newton: How a Jewish Collector Brought the Physicist’s Papers to America
“In some parts of the manuscripts, Newton himself had concluded that ‘Jehovah’ is the unique god.”
Review in Nature (1 May 2014): Science biography: A voyage round Newton
“Sarah Dry is to be congratulated for furnishing us with a fresh and readable chronicle of the tortuous route that Newton’s manuscript took to being made public”. So writes Mordechai Feingold this week, savouring a study on how the fitful release of the scientist’s papers shaped his reputation.