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Online project reveals religious zeal of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton: scientist and religious scholar

A collection of Sir Isaac Newton's writings, once scattered across 20 countries, have been reunited for the first time online, thanks to a University of Sussex-based project.

The collection, numbering millions of words written by one of the greatest names in science doesn't, however, relate to one of his great discoveries or designs, but to his religious studies and beliefs.

The Newton Project, led by University of Sussex historian Professor Rob Iliffe, in collaboration with Peterhouse Cambridge, has been collating, digitising and making freely available all the 'lost' theological writings of Sir Isaac Newton, now one of the largest online collections of writings of any individual. The project is funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Newton (1642-1727) discovered how gravity works, designed the first reflecting telescope, and laid down the three laws of motion, all of which have dominated the scientific view of the physical Universe ever since.

In 1703 Newton was elected President of the Royal Society, which marks its 350th anniversary this year, and Newton remains to this day one of the Society's most celebrated members.

However, Newton considered his religious writings to be the most significant field of his research.

For the last ten years, the Newton Project has been collating these lost papers and making them available online for the benefit of the both general public and academics alike. More than four million words are currently available on the site, with more being added every month.

Newton's non-scientific papers were auctioned by Sothebys in 1936, which resulted in them being scattered in collections in more than 20 countries. Until the Newton Project began transcribing these papers, the vast bulk of Newton's theological works had previously only ever been seen by a handful of privileged scholars.

Newton was a highly religious, if extremely unorthodox Protestant.  He wrote far more on religion and Biblical interpretation than on the natural sciences and mathematics for which he is best remembered.

Over 60 years, Newton scrutinised the complex code underlying the images and numbers in the Bible's books of Daniel and Revelation, and wrote millions of words trying to decipher them.

Professor Iliffe says: "Like the majority of his contemporaries, Newton believed that Revelation described in the bible was the true history of the world. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the founder of modern science was composing a brilliantly original treatise on the end of the world at exactly the same time (in the mid-1680s) as he was writing his great work Principia Mathematica."

One of the Newton Project's main objectives has been to reunite all this previously lost material with his scientific papers. Visitors to the project's website now have, for the first time, the chance to see Newton's private, unpublished historical and religious writings, alongside all the editions of his great scientific works.  The site includes personal writings, diaries and accounts, stretching all the way back to Newton's teenage years.

Professor Iliffe says, "Visitors to the website can see two different versions of his work - a 'diplomatic' version that displays all the changes that Newton made to his texts, and another 'normalised' version that shows the final text as Newton intended it. In some cases, images of the original manuscripts are also available."

One of the most personally revealing inclusions is Newton's list of his sins. Dating from 1662, a 19-year-old Newton records improper behaviour on the Sabbath, but also other misdemeanours such as stealing cherries, punching a close friend, having 'unclean' dreams, calling a girl a 'jade', and threatening to burn down his mother and stepfather's house with them in it. The list offers us a fascinating and unique window into the troubled mind of the young Newton and also to the day-to-day social and moral challenges of life in the 17th Century.


Notes for Editor

For interviews and images please contact The Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. See: www.ahrc.ac.uk  or contact the AHRC's Communications Officer: Emi Spinner, 0117 9876 770 e.spinner@ahrc.ac.uk  

Visit the Newton Project website at: www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune, Jacqui Bealing and Danielle Treanor. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email press@sussex.ac.uk

Home page photo shows an extract from Newton's apocalyptic history of Christianity, which details the Day of Judgement. Image courtesy of the National Library of Israel.

  


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Last updated: Tuesday, 18 May 2010

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