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The Newton Papers - Sarah Dry ***(*)

At one point I went through a phase of reading some of Pevsner's Buildings of England books from end to end. It was a bit of a slog, but I felt it was worth it for the insights I gained. This feeling came back a little with Sarah Dry's study of the 'strange and true odyssey of Isaac Newton's manuscripts.' I could not, in all honesty, give it more than three stars for readability, but I felt I got a lot out of it.

Newton left millions of words in piles of unstructured documents, covering science, maths, alchemy, theology and the business of the Royal Mint. Now we would expect such documents to end up in some sort of archive, but in Newton's day there was far less regard for such rough and 'foul' documents. To make matters worse, Newton was destined for scientific sainthood, and the amount of effort he put into the more dubious aspects of alchemy and virtually heretical theology was of distinct concern to those who wanted to preserve this illusion.

What Dry portrays very well is the gradual shift from sanitising Newton through accepting his flaws to various attempts to provide an integrated picture of Newton the man, trying to understand what made him such a great scientist. Getting a good overview wasn't helped in that many of the papers were kept hidden in the family library until sold in the 1930s - and then they were fragmented, rather than sold as a whole.

Equal stars with the documents themselves are the individuals who sought to collect them, understand them, or use them to get a better understanding of Newton and his method. Some of these characters come through particularly strongly, others are bit part players, but all feature in what is a relatively compact but in-depth study.

What I hadn't realised was how relatively recent the move into serious study, even in terms of a modern edited version of the Principia was - it wasn't until the late 1970s that much progress seems to have been made, and even now not everything has been fully dealt with. One oddity, incidentally - in a book published by Oxford University Press on a key figure in British science, the spellings in the book were American, which grated rather.

As a science writer with an interest in the history of science, I did find it well worth the effort of reading the book. There were times, either in veering off in the biography of a researcher, or in rather waffly assessments of Newton as a person, where I felt the urge to skip a bit, but there are rich pickings here, just as there were in Newton's own papers. An interesting contribution to this tiny, but important, corner of the history of science.

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Review by Brian Clegg 


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