You just never know

Posted by Tory Historian Wednesday, June 20, 2007

We all know that science does not develop in a straight line. Well, most of us know that. We also know that consensus in science is not necessarily a good thing. In fact, consensus in science is almost always wrong. Think Galileo, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister among many others.

Do we know, however, how very complicated scientists' attitudes are to the world around them? An interesting example has appeared on Tory Historian's horizon.

Three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible — exhibited this week for the first time — lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history's greatest scientist.

Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law — even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters — and combing the Old Testament's Book of Daniel for clues about the world's end.
That would be Isaac Newton who was one of the greatest and most revolutionary scientists in the age of enlightenment, which truly wrenched historical development out of its accustomed groove. Well, well, well. You just never know.

7 comments

  1. dearieme Says:
  2. Greatest physicist - of course. And on matters religious, barking. Moon-howlingly mad.

     
  3. Dearieme is missing something important.

    Take a look, for example, at the section on Newton in Stanley Jaki's book The Road of Science and the Ways to God.

    Newton's science was based on a pre-existing faith in the order and rationality of the created world, due to his faith in the Christian God. The early modern scientists persevered through very difficult challenges, including inadequate instruments and inadequate mathematical tools, due to a pre-existing that there was an orderly and rationally comprehensible underlying reality which was knowable by human reason. This was an element of Judeo-Christian religious faith which was absolutely foundational for the rise of science in the West as a self-sustaining enterprise -- as opposed to isolated acts of genius as in China and ancient Greece.

    It is no more possible to divide Newton into two or more pieces than it was for Solomon to (meaningfully) split the baby. Newton was a whole person and all the parts fit together. We need to work hard to overcome our modern prejudices to understand him as he was and as he saw himself, and as the best scientists of that golden age saw themselves.

     
  4. dearieme Says:
  5. "It is no more possible to divide Newton into two or more pieces..": why not? I'm perfectly happy to stand in awe of his physics and maths whole scoffing at his alchemy. Why then can't I scoff at his religion? After all, I may hold Einstein's physics as second only to Newton's, while accepting that Einstein was, in many ways, a nasty piece of work.

     
  6. "Why not?"

    Because if you disregard facts you find distasteful you will fail to accurately understand him, because you will be making a factual error about the man, his mind, and how the parts of him you like came to be.

    That's why.

     
  7. dearieme Says:
  8. I'm not disregarding facts about the man. I am happy to ignore his opinions. Do you want me to pay particular respect to his views on religion because he was a great physicist? Why on earth should I do that? Nor do I care about his views on music, sport or the theatre. You might as well recommend that I neglect Einstein's physics because he would seem to have discarded his first-born. It just doesn't follow.

     
  9. Anonymous Says:
  10. dear dearieme and lex,

    you guys are terrific,...

    a classic comedy team if ever there was one.

    thanks for the smiles

    uncle trash

     
  11. dearieme Says:
  12. Dear Nuncs, you want comedy? OK, here's the only Newton joke I've ever heard.
    "He wasn't the last scientist to leave Cambridge to make money".
    Side-splitter, eh?

     
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