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Isaac Newton: The Last Sorceror

Michael White
Fourth Estate, 1997, 402pp
ISBN: 1 85702 416 8

review by Ann Skea

Far from showing Isaac Newton to be "the last sorcerer" of the subtitle, this book adds little to what is already well known about him. In fact, so out of sympathy is Michael White with alchemy that he constantly refers to it as "illogical", "dubious" and "unscientific". And whilst in his Introduction he states that his "conclusion is unequivocal: the influence of Newton's researches in alchemy was the key to his world-changing discoveries in science", by page 130 he claims, equally unequivocally, that "the usefulness of alchemy is extending the frontiers of science is non-existent".

Amongst other things, White writes that Newton came to the fundamental alchemical principle "As above, so below" only after he had completed his _Principia_. Newton's _Principia_ was completed in 1687. Since Newton began his alchemical studies in 1667, and pursued them with the obsessive zeal, care and dedication which he brought to all his research, it is unlikely that he came to so fundamental a principle so late.

Nor is White's quotation from Newton's alchemical notes on the multiplication of the stone an example of "naked delirium....the work of a man on the verge of madness. Rather, it is an exact description of an alchemical process, perfectly consistent and understandable in an alchemical context.

One of Isaac Newton's greatest achievements was to move our investigation of our world from the realms of philosophy, rhetoric and random observation to an environment of carefully controlled experiment, where conclusions are based on repeatable experimental results. Newton was adamant that he did not deal with "mere hypothesis"..."for hypotheses should be subservient only in explaining the properties of things". What a pity that Michael White does not follow this example.

Time and again White cheerfully advances hypotheses based on the flimsiest of evidence or on mere supposition. Thus, Newton's alleged mental breakdown (evidenced by two strange letters written within a four-month period in a lifetime spanning eighty-five years) is combined with his alchemical interests to suggest an excursion into black magic. Or, more bizarrely, White rejects Newton's claim that his insight into a gravitational force came when he saw fruit fall from a tree whilst he was meditating in his mother's apple orchard. "The common factor in all these versions of the story", writes White, sternly, "is that they derive from Newton himself and we therefore have only his word that the story is true". According to Mr White, Newton fabricated the story later in life to disguise the fact that "much of his inspiration for the theory of gravity came from his subsequent alchemical work". But just how Newton's alchemical work was the source of his ideas, White never actually explains.

White, in the fashion of modern biographers, interprets limited evidence to speculate on Newton's personality, and he uses pop-psychology to discover the necessary shaping childhood trauma. He discusses Newton's possible sexual orientation as if this were essential to Newton's major work, and he claims that what he is doing is "demystifying truths that have long been veiled in secrecy". In the end, it is possible only to conclude that White's "truths" are, in Newton's terms "mere hypotheses", drawn from that "no-man's land between imagination and understanding" that White assures us is "the natural home of the biographer".

Sadly, this book fails to fulfil its promise to show just why John Maynard Keynes, after studying Newton's alchemical papers, called him "the last of the magicians"; or to show just how important alchemy was in shaping Newton's science.

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