My Review of The Newton Papers by Sarah Dry

My review of Sarah Dry’s The Newton Papers is in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.


A Reputation in Constant Motion

It was claimed that Newton’s writings on alchemy and theology were products of mental derangement.


May 23, 2014 2:21 p.m. ET

In the 1940s, a visitor to the Sir Isaac Newton Library on the campus of the Babson Institute (now Babson College) in Wellesley, Mass., could find herself transported to the front parlor of the house on St. Martin’s Street in London where Newton had lived between 1710 and 1725. Grace Knight Babson, wife of the shrewd investor and millionaire Roger Babson, had purchased the room—including its original pine-paneled walls and carved mantelpiece—and brought the pieces to Massachusetts, where it was reassembled as a tribute to the man who had lived and worked within it.

The Newton Papers

By Sarah Dry 
Oxford, 238 pages, $29.95


300px-Newton-WilliamBlake‘Newton’ (1795-1805), by William Blake. Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Roger Babson had made his fortune, he said, by espying Newton’s “law of action and reaction” in business cycles. To Babson and his wife, Newton was a seer who had divined the laws of markets as well as of nature. This was a quirky view of Newton, to be sure. But from the moment Newton died in 1727, different visions of the man arose. In “The Newton Papers,” Sarah Dry tells the story of these competing images of Newton by following the trail of the manuscripts Newton left behind.

At his death, Newton left some eight million words written on what an assessor of his estate called “loose and foul sheets,” unlabeled, tied with string and stuffed into boxes in no apparent order. His nephew John Conduitt planned to use them to write a biography of Newton, whom he idolized as a kind of intellectual saint. Conduitt soon realized the papers contained not only mathematical and scientific notes but also writings on alchemy, theology and church history—some demonstrating that his uncle held the heretical belief of “Anti-Trinitarianism,” which denied the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The incredible bulk of papers overwhelmed Conduitt, and he died in 1737 before completing his task. Newton’s estate passed to his descendants, the Portsmouth family, and most of the manuscripts were deposited in their home at Hurstbourne Park. The secretary of the Royal Society, Samuel Horsley, proposed publishing a complete edition of Newton’s writings in 1775 and was granted access to the papers. In the end only nine items—all related to Newton’s scientific pursuits—were printed. Horsley abandoned the plan of publishing the complete manuscripts, “most likely,” Ms. Dry speculates, “because of the papers’ heretical content.” After Horsley, no one was interested in the papers for decades.

Ms. Dry contends that for 150 years after Newton’s death the papers were “hidden from sight” because they threatened Newton’s image as a “paragon of rationality,” showing him to be “an obsessive heretic” interested in turning base metals into gold. But it is not clear that the papers were suppressed so much as ignored. In the author’s own telling, few thought it worthwhile to consult them. The indifference to Newton’s papers in the 18th century is even more astonishing—especially given today’s compulsion to pore over the ephemera of the famous—than the conjecture that the papers were purposely hidden away.

In the 19th century, Ms. Dry asserts, interest in unpublished letters and manuscripts suddenly became “all the craze.” She connects this to the scientific spirit of the age. Biographical claims, like scientific ones, required evidence, and so biographers began scouring unpublished material like naturalists seeking fossils in geological strata. Biographical studies of Newton started to appear, each painting a different image of the man.

After examining letters written by Newton’s acquaintances, the French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Biot claimed in 1822 that Newton had suffered a “mental derangement” in his late 40s—and that his writings on alchemy and theology were products of his madness. In a book published in 1831, Scottish physicist David Brewster tried to defend Newton’s mental health but was forced to agree that Newton did have a temporary nervous breakdown after a fire destroyed his laboratory. Yet, unlike Biot, he played down the heretical nature of the religious writings.

The banker-turned-historian of science Francis Baily inspected the papers left by John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, and found evidence that Newton was a vindictive and duplicitous man who had surreptitiously added a scathingly critical preface to Flamsteed’s own book. Brewster again rode to Newton’s defense with a massive two-volume biography that appeared in 1855.

Brewster had requested, and was granted, permission to examine the Newton papers at Hurstbourne Park. In the 1880s, most of Newton’s scientific manuscripts were donated by the Portsmouths and deposited in the Cambridge University Library, where they remained ignored by scholars for 60 more years. Finally in 1939, much of the stash remaining at Hurstbourne—the material dealing with alchemy and theology—was auctioned off. The economist John Maynard Keynes purchased and studied Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, concluding that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Biblical scholar Abraham Yahuda bought the theological material and came to see Newton as a “monotheist” who wished to “extend the universalistic character of Christianity.” At a time when Jews were being persecuted and murdered across Europe, Yahuda saw Newton as a kind of theological fellow traveler.

Ms. Dry’s style can be overwrought, with sentences like: “The papers of Isaac Newton waited, like a fairytale princess waiting for the prince who would bestow the kind of kiss to end centuries of enchantment.” As she traces the path of Newton’s manuscripts, she also narrates a history of the antiquarian book-selling trade, describing the eventual formation of a “Newton industry” of scholars in the kind of publication-by-publication detail that only a member of that field could enjoy. Her book, though, does succeed in showing how each of the different images of Newton that arose in the centuries after his death could indeed be found in Newton the man—and in the papers he left behind.


Ms. Snyder is the author of “The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”

Interview with Science for the People

Last month I chatted with Desiree Schell of the Science for the People syndicated radio show and podcast operating out of Edmonton, Alberta, and broadcasting throughout North America. It was fun to be immersed again in the nineteenth century for a while after working for the past couple of years on the seventeenth century. Talking about the four members of the philosophical breakfast club, I felt like I was catching up with old friends I hadn’t been in touch with for quite some time. It felt good. Sometimes I do miss the four men, especially Whewell and Jones—the two I would most like to have as dinner companions!

My chat with Desiree is now available for listening and/or downloading on the Science for the People website here.  Thanks, Desiree, for having me on the program, and for allowing me to visit with these four remarkable men for a while!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, from the midst of a Nantucket blizzard, where I am working on revisions to my new book! With luck it will appear in late 2014 or early 2015. Stay tuned!

Blizzard of 2014 on Nantucket!

Blizzard of 2014 on Nantucket

What a great way to start the new year: seeing that I landed on the 20 Most Popular Books of 2013 from Science Book a Day!

I was honored to be the first author interviewed by Science Book a Day’s George Aranda in May.

In April, the TED Talk I gave at TED Global in Edinburgh in June 2012 was put online at; it’s now been viewed over 650,000 times there, and 1.3 million over all venues!

It’s been an exciting year! And I’m looking forward to 2014! Hope it’s a great year for everyone.

Cartoon of my TED Talk

Giulia Forsythe drew this amazing pictorial summary of my TED Talk at TED Global 2012 for an upcoming TEDx event (TEDxUSagrado):

Philosophical Breakfast Club by @LauraJSnyder #TEDxUSagrado #viznotes

I think it’s fabulous! Thank you, Giulia!

Latest Book Review for Wall Street Journal

My review of Jonathan Lyons’s book, The Society for Useful Knowledge has appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. Subscribers can read the piece here.

A text-only version for non-subscribers:

BOOKSHELFSeptember 6, 2013, 4:19 p.m. ET
Book Review: ‘The Society for Useful Knowledge’ by Jonathan Lyons
Benjamin Franklin did far more for science than simply fly a kite.

Benjamin Franklin once led a party of merry picnickers who, with electrified gilt goblets, toasted the international community of scientists studying electricity. The group then slaughtered a turkey with an electrical charge and roasted it with electrical fire. Franklin observed: “Birds killed in this Manner eat uncommonly tender.” Franklin was one of the foremost “electricians” of his day, winning the prestigious Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his theoretical and practical accomplishments in the field. Connections between Franklin’s scientific work and his role in early American politics have been explored in a number of biographies and scholarly studies. In “The Society for Useful Knowledge,” Jonathan Lyons takes a provocative turn: He claims that Franklin’s notion of “useful knowledge”—gleaned from the charter of the Royal Society—spread throughout the colonies and “made possible the Revolution and . . . America’s characteristic political and economic systems.”

The Society for Useful Knowledge

By Jonathan Lyons
Bloomsbury, 220 pages, $27

The Royal Society, founded 46 years before Franklin’s birth in 1706, was Europe’s leading scientific body. As a young man, Franklin was struck by its exhortation “to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanic practices, Engines and Inventions by Experiments.” He drafted a “Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge” influenced by these goals and dreamed of forming his own, uniquely American, scientific society. In 1727, he launched a modest group, the “Leather Apron Club”: 12 scientifically minded men who met once a week, initially at the Indian King Tavern on Market Street in Philadelphia. Soon other local scientific societies would be formed, part of a loose social network of men circulating scientific knowledge within and among the colonies.

In Mr. Lyons’s telling, Franklin’s own scientific work, like the forming of the Leather Apron Club, was guided by the ideal of “useful knowledge,” and in detailing Franklin’s work he gives pride of place to the invention of the lightning rod. To be sure, this was an important innovation, but focusing on it fails to convey a full sense of Franklin’s accomplishments. Franklin proved that electricity was a phenomenon that occurred in nature as well as in the laboratory. He invented a theory that brought order to a bedlam of apparently unrelated facts and demonstrated that any adequate scientific system must encompass electricity and magnetism. Far from believing solely in practical science, Franklin supposed that theoretical work—as we would say, “basic research”—would be equally necessary.

Mr. Lyons introduces us to other scientific thinkers and inventors of the day, including David Rittenhouse, a young Philadelphia clockmaker who emerged as one of the leading astronomers of colonial America. Rittenhouse’s effort, in 1769, to chart the transit of Venus over the face of the sun (an event that happens in pairs of occurrences every 100 or so years) added to the legitimacy of the newly formed American Philosophical Society—Franklin’s long dreamed-of national scientific association—which had funded it. Overcome by excitement and exertion, Rittenhouse fainted in front of his telescope, nearly missing the transit.

Mr. Lyons tells an interesting, if unoriginal, story of the growth of science and scientific networks in colonial and post-colonial America. But in formulating his ambitious claim that the notion of useful knowledge “made possible the Revolution,” he overreaches. His application of the term “useful knowledge” is frustratingly fluid, encompassing anything practical, experimental, utilitarian or self-reliant, from educational policy to the kind of “common sense” expressed in Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet. Some set of ideas—scientific, philosophical, religious, political, military and economic—did inspire the American Revolution and what came after. By reducing that collection to the catchall phrase “useful knowledge,” Mr. Lyons renders his book less useful than it might have been for illuminating both Franklin and the intellectual roots of our nation.

—Ms. Snyder is the author of “The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”
A version of this article appeared September 7, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Franklin’s Bright Spark.

My Newest Video Interview

I recently sat for an interview (via Skype) with George Aranda of Science Book a Day, which featured The Philosophical Breakfast Club today. We chatted about PBC, my next book, how scientists can best communicate science to the general public, and what it was like to give a TED talk. You can view the interview on the Science Book a Day website (well worth checking out, by the way!) here or directly below.

Review: “Truly Remarkable”

I somehow managed to miss this wonderful review of The Philosophical Breakfast Club that appeared last year, in the British magazine Endeavour:

“Snyder’s excellent book achieves the impossible….All four of the main characters in her narrative are such dominant figures in the Victorian intellectual landscape that each of them would normally require…a substantial biography in their own right. Snyder manages to give the reader a deep look into the lives and intellectual achievements of all four in a scant 450 pages, a truly remarkable feat. Beyond this each of the protagonists was a polymath and together they cover a bewildering range of academic and semi-academic topics….When dealing with these each of these topics, and the contributions that one or more of the quartet made, Snyder first gives a concise but extensive history of the subject at hand. Each of these potted histories is good enough to serve as an encyclopedia article on the topic dealt with, a second remarkable achievement.

Snyder’s book is written for the educated non-expert, the layperson who is interested in nineteenth-century history, the Victorian age,the history of science and more. Her tone is light and she writes well and entertainingly. She meets her aim well and the book can be read by the non-expert with great pleasure. However, this is not just a popular book. Snyder’s research is first-class and the book…can be read with great profit by students of the history and or philosophy of science as well as practicing historians….

If you want a good entertaining, informative and stimulating read, then this is highly recommended.”
(vol. 36, March 2012, p. 1)

With thanks to the review’s author, Thony Christie, for bringing it to my attention…and, of course, for writing it!

About the Author

Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D., is a science historian, philosopher and writer whose most recent book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World, was an Official Selection of the TED Book Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, and winner of the 2011 Royal Institution of Australia Poll for Favorite Science Book. It was also named an "Outstanding Academic Title" in history of science and technology by the American Library Association. Snyder is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York City and writes frequently about science and ideas for The Wall Street Journal. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and Past President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science.

 She is currently working on a book about how new optical technologies in the 17th century revolutionized not only science, but also art and the rest of culture. Follow Laura Snyder on Twitter and Facebook.

Blog posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 315 other followers


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 315 other followers