Science18 Oct 2007 08:20 am
Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists in human history. In the summer of 1665, Newton moved to a house in the suburb of Woolsthorpe to escape the devastation of the plague then ravaging London. (Cambridge University, where Newton had been conducting his studies, was closed because of the outbreak.) He stayed there until the spring of 1667. When he emerged, he had some discoveries to announce. While in a suburban cottage for slightly less than two years, Newton invented calculus (at around the same time that the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz independently discovered it), discovered the universal laws of motion, formulated the law of gravitation, and built the foundation for the modern study of optics. It was a productive country vacation.
As the writer Sam Harris recently put it, this may be “the most awe-inspiring display of human intelligence in the history of human intelligence.” Amazingly, this display was put on by a rather eccentric thinker whose interests ranged far more broadly than the modern sciences he founded. He was also a student of the occult. In fact, it was his occult studies that Newton valued most highly. He spent years trying to discover the secrets of “alchemy,” or the process (now known to be impossible) of turning lead into gold; he attempted to find hidden codes in the Scriptures; he made prophecies about the end of time. None of these studies came to anything, and Newton despaired and not discovering the secrets of the universe. A particular shame: few have revealed as many of those secrets as Newton himself.
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