Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Newton's Apocalypse Papers Displayed

The Jewish National & University Library in Jerusalem has put on public display (for the first time) a collection of Isaac Newton's manuscripts on religion, including his calculations of the date of the end of the world and the dimensions of the temple at Jerusalem, the AP notes.

A web version of the exhibit, with digital copies of the manuscripts, is here.

The collection was purchased by scholar/collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda at Sotheby's in 1936, and was donated by him at his death to the state of Israel in 1951. The national library took possession of the materials in 1969, but they have never been displayed until now.

"Yemima Ben-Menahem, one of the exhibit's curators, said the papers show Newton's conviction that important knowledge was hiding in ancient texts. 'He believed there was wisdom in the world that got lost. He thought it was coded, and that by studying things like the dimensions of the temple, he could decode it,' she said. The Newton papers, Ben-Menahem said, also complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion. 'These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervor, by a desire to see God's actions in the world.'"

Incidentally, Newton's study of the Book of Daniel in an attempt to determine the time of the apocalypse led to his conclusion that the world will not end before 2060. "It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner. This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

Also included in the exhibit is a 1940 letter from Albert Einstein to Yahuda about the Newton papers. He writes in part: "While the process by which Newton’s writings about the physical world evolved must remain hidden, as Newton apparently destroyed the preliminary versions, in the realm of his biblical work, which is still mostly unpublished, we have a variety of sketches and ongoing changes that give us a most interesting look into the mental laboratory of this unique thinker."