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.

0 Responses to “Comet Book Report: Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer, by Michael White”

  1. kizmet_42

    Did the author discuss the effect of the mercury from the alchemy experience had on Newton’s personality?

    • Marie Brennan

      White brought that up, but ultimately disqualified it as an explanation; there’s no evidence Newton suffered any of the physical debilities that indicate mercury poisoning. (Or for that matter, lead poisoning, which was also proposed by the same researchers who tested Newton’s hair in the ’70s.)

      Mind you, I’ve only read the one book; the balance of the scholarly opinion might lie elsewhere. But White sounded persuasive.

      • kizmet_42

        I read a review of a biography a few months (year?) back that discussed a period of time when Newton was deeply involved in his alchemical studies and by all accounts – his own journal, letters written to others, etc – the man was seriously impaired with classic signs of mercury poisoning for a short period. I don’t remember all the other details, but the idea that an author could look at Newton’s letters and make the logical leap to metal poisoning intrigued me. A kind of forensic anthropology without a body, eh? That’s why I remembered it.

        • Marie Brennan

          He had a brief mental breakdown in 1693, yes — but it was very transient, only four months, and like I said, featured none of the other symptoms (though admittedly all we have to go on for that are his letters to Locke at the time, and the fact that he died at age eighty-four with a full set of healthy teeth).

          It is an intriguing idea, and it’s one of several that people do consider, but that’s White’s argument for dismissing it.

  2. unforth

    Yeah, plus there’s the fact that when ever I hear Newton’s name, I think of Vision of Escaflowne…

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