Beyond the myth of the apple, his name as a synonym of a scientist par excellence and the title of father of modern physics, Isaac Newton was a man who responded vehemently to the conditions of his time. He was an obstinate believer and a selfish thinker, theologist, and alchemist before becoming a scientist, an author of the principles which revolutionized the way we understand the world. He was also a tormented individual, with an insatiable curiosity, and an ambitious leader who used the power he gained to his advantage.
This is the darkest and most human side of Isaac Newton, for many, the most prominent scientist in history.
The ‘Sins’ of Isaac Newton
From the first moment, Newton’s childhood was not easy. He was Hannah Ayscough’s only child, and was born prematurely, unusually frail, and had enough complications to bet he wouldn’t survive. His father had passed months before his birth, and at three years of age, his mother left him to marry for the second time.
Her absence marked him for life, and he carried the repudiation towards his mother and stepfather for the rest of his life. In a list of sins written in 1662, he confessed he repented on threatening his parents.
His Ego and Rivalries
Despite his genius, Newton had a particularly arrogant personality and was reluctant to criticism. Once his studies about Optics were refuted by the Royal Society, the physicist developed a lifelong rivalry with Robert Hooke, who also introduced an early outline of the Law of Universal Gravitation with the concept of a fundamental force that acted at a distance. This was never accepted by Newton.
Similarly, the author of Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) was involved in controversy along with Gottfried Leibniz, since the german thinker established the bases of calculus parallel to Newton, who claimed he had been plagiarized.
The ‘Hidden Messages’ in the Bible
Throughout his life, Newton’s theoretical production focused mainly on Theology and Alchemy. As a man who was a product of his time, he agreed with the mechanistic school of thought started by Descartes a century prior, set as a base of modern reasoning.
At the same time, he fervently professed Anglicanism and was convinced that, if he carried a careful reading of biblical texts, he could find a deep meaning of life and unveil the mysteries of the universe.
Motivated by a sublime curiosity, Newton spent decades trying to decipher hidden messages in the Bible because he thought they unveiled the forces in nature. He was certain that those mechanisms which rule the universe could be discovered from the prophets’ words. It was a mixture between Alchemy, Theology, and his insatiable search for truth, which led him to become a philosopher, nature observant, and thinker who would revolutionize physics through the publication of Principia.
Once Newton gained popularity and respect among the scientific community, the physicist became the president of the Royal Society for 25 years, from 1703 to the day he passed. He used his position and its influence and power inside British science to discredit Hooke’s work, subtly reducing its importance. At the same time, he tried to rewrite history to his advantage regarding the invention of calculus and his rivalry with Leibniz through a “secret report” written by himself. Both versions were reproduced as truths and are still valid today.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva