Comet Book Report: Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, by Michael White
As with Kit Marlowe and MNC, Isaac Newton is the guy I had to read a lot about in order to decide I’m not going to do as much with him as I thought.
Newton, of course, is already long dead by the time this novel begins. But he, or at least his work, is vitally important to a bunch of the events that lead up to the novel, so I needed to read at least one biography of him to decide how to integrate him. The answer is, not the way I thought I would; his religious views are just waaaaaaay the hell too incompatible with the fae for there to have been any kind of deliberate collusion there. What they got from him, they did in secret.
But anyway, this book. If I was going to read only one biography, this was a good one, within the context of my specific purposes. White’s mission here, aside from writing a biography, is to integrate Newton’s alchemy with his other work; building on Dobbs’ research, he tries to establish that things like the alchemical notion of active principles or the physical appearance of the star regulus of antimony helped him to the epiphanies involved in (say) his theory of gravitation. I don’t think he entirely succeeds at this, but I mean that in more of a narrative sense; it felt like if that were true, then you should be able to spot it more pervasively in Newton’s work. On the other hand, human beings rarely obey the laws of narrative, so.
Since alchemy and the transition to proper science are a major part of what I’m looking at, though, this biography’s focus was useful to me. Its flaw on that front, I think, is that White seems incapable of fully understanding why alchemy was something smart men could spend time on; that failure of empathy is probably linked in with his purpose, when you get down to it, justifying Newton’s alchemy on the basis that it led to Newton’s real science. Aside from that, though, this book was pretty much exactly what I needed: a detailed (yet readable) chronology of the guy’s life, in the context of his personality.
Which, as it turns out, was that of “borderline megalomaniacal jackass.” Okay, that’s a little unfair, but man — I’d heard Newton was a jerk. I didn’t realize how true it was. He had a terrible time acknowledging his debts to other people’s work, or the possibility that they might have had an idea before he did, which possibly arose because of his bizarre semi-conception of himself as a Christ figure. I’m oversimplifying here, but it seems the whole “born on Christmas Day after his father’s death” thing left Newton with a very idiosyncratic notion of God and his relationship to same, linking in with his anti-trinitarianism and so on. Anyway, if you want to know more about that, read The Religion of Isaac Newton by Frank E. Manuel, which I read before I picked up this book (probably a bad idea).
So. Readable biography of Newton plus some discussion of alchemy. If that’s useful to you, have at it.