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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / science


The Newton Papers

Sarah Dry

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To purchase The Newton Papers

Title: The Newton Papers
Author: Sarah Dry
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 211 pages
Availability: The Newton Papers - US
The Newton Papers - UK
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  • The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts

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Our Assessment:

B : solid introduction to the handling of the scientist's papers, usefully placed in context

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 21/6/2014 .
Nature . 1/5/2014 Mordechai Feingold
Scotland on Sunday . 20/7/2014 Stuart Kelly
Times Higher Ed. . 9/10/2014 Robyn Arianrhod
TLS . 5/11/2014 Arnold Hunt
Wall Street Journal . 23/5/2014 Laura J.Snyder

  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)ngaging (.....) The Newton that emerges from the manuscripts is far from the popular image of a rational practitioner of cold and pure reason. The architect of modern science was himself not very modern." - The Economist

  • "Dry tracks the pages, not the mind of Newton, and finds ample anecdotes along the way to make this bibliographic thriller a delight to read. It will make even the most au fait reader say "Crikey"." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

  • "The Newton Papers includes many other fascinating historical details, along with biographical vignettes of the heroes (and occasional heroines) of the story (.....) Dry skilfully elucidates the way that changing times shaped not only the fate of Newton’s papers, but also attitudes to their contents." - Robyn Arianrhod, Times Higher Education

  • "There are a few minor errors in Dry’s account (.....) But her book succeeds in making the dispersal of an archive seem an event as momentous as Philip Larkin’s lines on death, when 'the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever'." - Arnold Hunt, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ms. Dry's style can be overwrought (.....) As she traces the path of Newton's manuscripts, she also narrates a history of the antiquarian book-selling trade, describing the eventual formation of a "Newton industry" of scholars in the kind of publication-by-publication detail that only a member of that field could enjoy. Her book, though, does succeed in showing how each of the different images of Newton that arose in the centuries after his death could indeed be found in Newton the man -- and in the papers he left behind." - Laura J.Snyder, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Sarah Dry's books does, indeed, as the sub-title has it, explore The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts -- i.e. it is more concerned with what became of Newton's voluminous writings -- much of it unpublished during his lifetime (some 3.6 million unpublished words, she cites one editor's estimate) -- than with the actual content of the papers. The content does however play a significant role in the story, for a variety of reasons. Newton was recognized as a scientific genius from early on, but he also did far more than dabble in other areas, and he left behind enormous amounts of writings on, among other things, religion (Biblical history and exegesis) and alchemy which were hard to reconcile with his image as a scientist -- especially since he espoused anti-Trinitarianism (which denies the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and asserts the primacy of one 'God'), a belief that, Dry notes, "was heretical to mainstream Anglicans of the day". There was also that bothersome mental breakdown that happened when he was around fifty, and there was also his long stint in charge of the Royal Mint, dealing yet again with entirely different issues -- all of which might be seen as muddying the pure(-science) Newtonian image and legacy if too much word got out.
       Among the interesting observations Dry makes is that Newton failed to make a will -- and that this was not an oversight on his part. She suggests he: "likely intended to leave his papers in the purgatory in which they landed", without clear instructions as to what should be done with them, noting:

As we will see, given their contents, any clear instructions could have caused his executors significant problems. Had he instructed them to publish the papers immediately, Newton would have exposed them to potential censure and ridicule by those who were not prepared to receive the truth they contained. Had he explicitly ordered them to keep the papers secret, he would likewise have implicated them directly in his potentially dangerous beliefs. Instead he chose a middle ground whose very blurriness was a form of protection.
       The limbo worked out fairly well. While the papers were not all kept together they were reasonably well preserved and kept track of. Their significance was noted -- but, until relatively recently, interest in really getting to the root of things was limited to fairly few dedicated souls.
       The family with the largest holdings kept tight watch over the papers and limited access -- not that too many came calling anyway. Even cataloguing the various hoards was a considerable challenge, and even when lots went up for auction they were often mix-and-match collections. Fortunately, Newton has always had enough admirers and been considered important enough that the papers did receive more attention and closer scrutiny, and by now things have been pretty well sorted out. As to the various journeys the papers have taken, and the people involved, Day does a fine job of tracing the most important movements.
       While the focus is on Newton's papers, Day also follows the changing attitudes towards such written legacies -- leading in Britain also to the 1869 founding of a pushy Royal Commission on Historical Mansucripts. From the bargain-basement prices that some of Newton's writings and books could still be acquired for not all that long ago (as well as the tricks of the collectors' trades to keep auction prices low ...) to the incredible present-day prices Newtoniana fetches, Day also shows the shifting attitudes towards (and valuation of) papers by the famous and of (possible) historical significance.
       Day offers some interesting portraits of the people involved with Newton's papers, milking John Maynard Keynes' interest for all it's worth but also introducing several lesser-known figures that also played key roles. Regrettably, she devotes relatively little space to the current situation -- where, for example, "all of Newton's private writings on religious and alchemical topics, some 7 million words, are now freely available online". The major online 'repositories' of Newton's papers -- The Newton Project and The Chymistry of Isaac Newton -- are duly mentioned, but Day doesn't go very far in exploring what this means, her book decidedly focused on the journeys of the physical manuscripts.
       The Newton Papers is a useful piece in the fascinating puzzle that is Newton's work and legacy, but only a rather narrow sliver. It also makes for an interesting case study of how the unpublished papers of scientists and others have been handled over the past centuries, even if the always larger than life figure of Newton is not typical.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 May 2014

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The Newton Papers: Reviews: Isaac Newton and his papers: Sarah Dry: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sarah Dry was born in 1974.

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© 2014 the complete review

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