Sunday, June 1, 2008

Newton: Does every genius need a tincture of crackpot?

An excerpt from Christopher Hitchens' effusion of praise for Isaac Newton, "Flaws of Gravity" in Vanity Fair online (April 14, 2008):
Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery. He believed in the lost art of alchemy, whereby base metals can be transmuted into gold, and the surviving locks of his hair show heavy traces of lead and mercury in his system, suggesting that he experimented upon himself in this fashion, too. (That would also help explain the fires in his room, since alchemists had to keep a furnace going at all times for their mad schemes.) Not content with the narrow views of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, he thought that there was a kind of universal semen in the cosmos, and that the glowing tails of the comets he tracked through the sky contained replenishing matter vital for life on Earth. He was a religious crackpot who, according to Ackroyd, considered Catholics to be “offspring of the Whore of Rome.” He was also consumed by arcane readings of the book of Revelation and obsessed with the actual measurements of the Temple of Solomon. Newton elected to write his already difficult Principia Mathematica in Latin, boasting that this would make it even less accessible to the vulgar. He is still revered in the little world of esoteric and conspiratorial mania, featuring as a member of “the Priory of Sion” in The Da Vinci Code. And secularists and rationalists conspire, too, in their way, to keep his mythic reputation alive.

I knew there was some reason I liked Newton so much. He did nothing by halves, and that included crackpottery. It's good of Hitch to remind us, while reviewing Peter Ackroyd's brief Newton biography.