The Magic of Newton

Daily Mail (London), November 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Magic of Newton


Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION Is it true that Sir Isaac Newton was a keen astrologer? AT THE beginning of the 17th century, most scientists, such as Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, held astrology in high esteem. As in art, Renaissance or classical science revisited the work of the ancient Greeks, and it took time to shake off their entrenched belief in astrology.

By the end of the 17th century, the scientific community had, however, almost universally rejected astrology. While some were derisive, the likes of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) simply ignored it.

The notion that Newton was a keen astrologer seems to rest on a popular anecdote: when Edmond Halley (1656-1742) spoke derisively about astrology, Newton is said to have remarked: 'Sir Halley, I have studied the matter, you have not!' In fact, there is good evidence that Halley was deriding religion, not astrology, and that the pair disagreed on theological matters.

Scientists have pored over every word of Newton's output, from his seminal Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) to his most obscure jottings, and there is no evidence he gave astrology any consideration.

Derek Thomas Whiteside, the scientific historian, said he had not found 'any reference to astrology among the 50million words that have been preserved of Newton's writings', and a claim that Oxford's Bodleian Library has a rare treatise on astrology by Newton was also proved untrue.

In his 1978 book The Library Of Isaac Newton, John Harrison makes a close study of the 1,752 works preserved from Newton's studies. He found just four related to astrology: a work by the German astrologer Johann Essler from Mainz (late 15th/early 16th century); a treatise on palmistry and astrology by the English doctor/astrologer Richard Saunders (1613-1675); an almanac by Richard Saunders using the pseudonym Cardanus Rider and Tetractys Anti-Astrologica; and a work debunking astrology by the philosopher poet and Cambridge professor Henry More (1614-1687).

Harrison's research does show that Newton had a deep interest in what we'd call the occult. Newton considered himself to be one of a select group chosen by God for the task of understanding Biblical scripture. He spent a great deal of time trying to decode the Bible and 'divine' architecture, such as the Temple of Solomon.

A further 169 books were about alchemy. Newton wasted considerable energy trying to create the philosopher's stone, the alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals (such as lead) into gold.

Economist John Maynard Keynes (1886-1946) opined: 'Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.' Alan Mottram, Oxford.

QUESTION If profits from the National Lottery were spent paying off the national debt, how long would it take to clear it? AS THE Government takes 12 per cent of Lottery income in lottery duty, income from the National Lottery is already paying off some of the national debt.

Half the income is paid out in prizes and 10 per cent goes to Camelot and ticket retailers for operating the Lottery. This leaves 28 per cent for the good causes the Lottery supports.

Given that removing the prizes would end the incentive to buy a ticket or a scratch card and Camelot and retailers have to have some reason to sell the tickets, it would only be the money for good causes that would be available to pay off the national debt.

The annual report and accounts for the National Lottery for the last full year, 2011, show that income was [pounds sterling]1.56 billion. Based on 28 per cent being allocated for good causes, [pounds sterling]436 million could be used to pay off the national debt.

In August, the national debt was [pounds sterling]1,040 billion so paying off the debt as it stands with Lottery profit would take 2,385 years. …

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