Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Word for Word on the Web, Isaac Newton’s Secret Musings
A look at The Newton Project.
By Peter Dizikes. The New York Times, June 12, 2003

John Maynard Keynes called them “fascinating” and read them in taxis. Albert Einstein called them “unique treasures.” But for roughly 300 years, just a handful of people had ever seen Isaac Newton’s voluminous writings on alchemy and theology. Now that is changing, thanks to a group of scholars who are making them available on the Internet.

The Newton Project, a joint effort based at the University of London, aims gradually to post all of the scientist’s previously unpublished work at a Web site, including thousands of pages of alchemical and theological writings and, eventually, some of his optical studies. The material, which may take 15 to 20 years to finish transcribing, will be accompanied by high-resolution images of the manuscripts.

The enterprise was founded in 1998 by a small group of Newton scholars who had grown tired of seeing the complete writings of other important thinkers published only as expensive multivolume editions that would invariably languish in a few academic libraries.

“In these projects in the past, you’ve got scholars who produce very high-quality printed texts for about three people,” said Rob Iliffe, a historian at the University of London and a co-founder of the project. “Ordinary people who’ve funded these things, taxpayers, don’t have access.”

For the Newton Project, said Dr. Iliffe, “My image was of something that would be available to anybody with a computer—an 8-year-old kid, an intelligent lay reader, a university scholar.”

But Newton is famous for his work in physics and mathematics. Why publish his thoughts about religion or alchemy?

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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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