Laura J. Snyder's Blog

January 27, 2016

Published in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 26, 2016 7:24 p.m. ET

Science, Sorcery and Sons
Kepler believed in witches. He probably even wondered about the potions his mother brewed. But when she was accused, he came to her aid.

More than 300 years after Salem’s famous trials, American popular culture remains preoccupied with the supposed witches of 17th-century Massachusetts. But we do not hear much about the women accused of witchcraft across the ocean during the same period in Württemberg, Germany. In “The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother,” Ulinka Rublack, a professor of early modern history at the University of Cambridge, introduces us to one of these witches, Katharina Kepler, who was tried in Württemberg in 1615-21.

Katharina was the mother of Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution that had begun to sweep Europe. In 1609, as court astronomer to Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, Johannes used the remarkable naked-eye observations of his predecessor Tycho Brahe to discover that the planets orbit the sun in paths that are elliptical—overthrowing the belief in circular orbits that had held since Aristotle’s time and strengthening the arguments for a heliocentric universe. Johannes was a deeply religious Lutheran whose scientific work was imbued with spiritual beliefs. He cast horoscopes, listened to the “music of the spheres” and understood the cosmos to be a living organism possessed of a soul. Like most people of his time, he believed in the existence of witches.

Witchcraft trials in Germany were family affairs. A woman prosecuted as a witch had to rely for her legal defense on her husband, if she had one, and on her brothers and sons, if she did not. Widows were frequent targets of such accusations, because their right to engage in commercial activities—denied to other women—gave them an independence that went against the social order. Many widows, including Katharina, earned money as healers, using strange herbs and incantations. People feared the power of these women.


The Astronomer and the Witch
By Ulinka Rublack

Katharina’s first accuser was her own son Heinrich, a ne’er-do-well who had returned home after 25 years of fighting as a mercenary throughout Europe. Angered that she did not have enough food on hand to satisfy him, he “publicly slandered her as a witch,” as Ms. Rublack recounts, and died soon afterward. His comment would come to haunt the trial, which was prompted by a persistent neighbor of Katharina, who claimed that she had become lame after drinking one of Katharina’s potions. Once Katharina was charged, other disturbing facts came to light, such as her request that a gravedigger exhume her father’s head so that she could fashion the skull into a drinking vessel. Hearing this, even Johannes wondered if there was something to the allegations.

By quoting liberally from the documents written by Johannes and his other brother, Christoph, in defense of their mother, Ms. Rublack opens a window onto the workings of witchcraft trials in 17th-century Germany. We see Christoph impugning the reputation of Katharina’s main accuser by referring to her past imprisonment for “illicit sex” and Johannes blaming the growing number of accusations against Katharina on the fact that people generally disliked old women—especially disagreeable ones like his mother.

Ms. Rublack asserts that Johannes’s skill and status as a scholar uniquely qualified him to save his mother. This is an appealing conclusion, given our knowledge of the crucial role he played in the Scientific Revolution. But her account reveals that, for all his brilliance and stature, Johannes Kepler was just another son scrambling to prevent his mother from being burned at the stake. He had no special status in the proceedings, and the part he played simply underscores the utter unpredictability—and the terror—of witchcraft accusations. No one’s mother was safe, not even a court astronomer.

Around the same time 14 other women in Württemberg were accused of witchcraft, and six of them were also freed. The ones found guilty met miserable fates, including torture and being burnt at the stake. But the others who were freed didn’t have—and apparently didn’t need—a brilliant astronomer on their team. Johannes’s interventions seem to have been met with no more favor by the authorities than those of his brother Christoph, a pewter worker, who prevailed in moving the trial to a more advantageous location, or even those of their sister Margaretha, the wife of a pastor, who successfully advocated for Katharina’s transfer to a somewhat more comfortable prison.

It was, however, Johannes’s persistence in the face of interminable delays and obfuscations that won the day. In the final stage of the 6-year action, he wrote a lengthy document arguing that his mother should not be tortured. His plea failed to convince the ducal court’s advocate. Johannes had one more chance to save her, with a plea sent to the law faculty of Tübingen. Luckily, the six professors were more compassionate, concluding that, at 75, Katharina was too old to be tortured. Instead she would be shown the tools of torture in the hopes that it would “scare the truth out of her.” In the torture chamber, Katharina impressed the witnesses with her pious behavior. Within days she was released from her iron shackles and allowed to go home. She died six months later.

Katharina Kepler’s story is fascinating, but Ms. Rublack’s book will disappoint some. It is written in a shorthand style that might be appreciated by scholars familiar enough with the period to understand passing references to, say, “Baconian men.” Other readers may prefer James Connor’s 2004 book, “Kepler’s Witch,” which provides a livelier narrative redolent with details of life in 17th-century Germany.

What happened to Katharina Kepler is a morality tale about the dangers faced by independent, strong-willed and sometimes disagreeable women in Germany in early modern Europe. It is also a valuable reminder that the Scientific Revolution was made by men with deeply held spiritual, religious and metaphysical views, including the belief that there were witches all around them—even, perhaps, at home.

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Published on January 27, 2016 09:44 • 74 views

May 2, 2015

My review of James Secord’s Visions of Science appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 11th.

Science Books That Made Modernity


Thomas De Quincey claimed that certain books existed only to teach their readers, while others changed the world by transforming and motivating them. The first he called a “literature of knowledge,” the second, a “literature of power.” In “Visions of Science” James A. Secord, a professor at Cambridge, highlights seven powerful books from the 1830s that altered their age.

At the time, English society was undergoing radical change. New discoveries were altering the conception of the natural world. New technologies—steamships, railways and telegraphs—were transforming the pace of life. All this was exhilarating, but also frightening.

Many English readers equated scientific innovation with the materialist view promoted by French writers such as Pierre-Simon Laplace, who famously told Napoleon that his conception of nature “had no need of the hypothesis” of God. Mr. Secord’s seven writers insisted that science is not inconsistent with religious faith, but rather an engine to further faith. They promoted this position in different genres, from the science fiction-like book of the chemist and president of the Royal Society of London Humphry Davy, “Consolations in Travel” (1830)—where the narrator is guided by a “spirit” through the entire history of humanity (at the end, the two concur that all science “must begin from a foundation of faith”)—to the more programmatic and influential work of the astronomer and co-inventor of photography, John Herschel, whose “Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy” (1831) showed readers that, rather than leading to atheism, science inoculates us from the “brazen certainty of unbelief.”



By James A. Secord

Chicago, 306 pages, $30


In her popular book “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences” (1834), Mary Somerville used the recent unification of electricity and magnetism into “electromagnetism” to contend that science was tending toward what we would call a “theory of everything.” Somerville believed God wrote the laws of nature in the language of mathematics and that the study of mathematics was the “highest form of theology.” This belief was shared by the irascible inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, who suggested that God “programmed in” (as we would put it) future changes to these laws, so alterations in nature could occur without divine intervention. In his “Reflections on the Decline of Science” (1830) Babbage subjected the era’s scientific societies to mathematical analysis, calculating the numbers of non-publishing members and the “cooking” of experimental results.” (The Royal Society did not fare well.)

Charles Lyell, a lawyer-turned-geologist, urged readers to seek evidence of God’s goodness not in scripture but in those laws that He had used in creating the universe. Lyell’s three-volume “Principles of Geology” (1830-1833) replaced the prevailing view that the Earth’s history was punctuated with episodes of violent change—such as the Biblical flood—with a vision of slow processes acting uniformly over a long period of time. In part to avoid the charge of materialism, Lyell omitted human history from his account. He was sickened, Mr. Secord notes, by the notion of a transmutation or evolution of species, believing it a “dirty, disgusting doctrine.”

But mankind would not be left out of the picture for long. “Constitution of Man” (published in a limited edition in 1828, reissued in 1836), by George Combe, a self-educated legal clerk, brought human action into the realm of natural law by popularizing the theory of phrenology, which held that the brain was the organ of thought, and the shape of the skull a guide to a man’s mental character. This troubled those who feared that this materialistic view made human spiritual destiny a predetermined question, removing the need for Christ’s atonement. Combe circumvented this criticism, as Babbage had, by presenting God’s creation as a progressive system.

“Visions of Science” is, as Mr. Secord acknowledges, “a book about books.” We learn more about typeface size, bindery material, print runs and sales figures of the books than about the authors. We would not glean from this account, for example, how intertwined their lives were: They attended the same parties, discussed science together and reviewed one another’s works. Taken together, the books Mr. Secord features tell a fascinating story, and they paved the way to another that is not featured in Mr. Secord’s account but hovers over the others like Davy’s spirit guide.

In “Origin of Species” (1859), Charles Darwin took the central ideas in these books—that there is a connection between the sciences, that the Earth is much older than previously thought, that God created the world to work by uniform natural law, and that He built lawful change into his original creation—and used them to frame his theory of evolution by natural selection in terms his readers could accept. The success of Darwin—and the books that influenced him—is evidenced by the fact that within two decades of its publication most British scientists and much of the public accepted that species evolved.

Although Darwin famously delayed publishing “Origin” for years, some writers in the 1830s could already sense where things were going. Mr. Secord’s final work, Thomas Carlyle’s curmudgeonly “Sartor Resartus” (originally published in magazine installments in 1833) makes mockery of the scientific spirit of his age, lamenting science’s loss of spirituality. But scientific inquiry would not be stopped, and—as Mr. Secord deftly shows—Carlyle’s contemporaries helped to prove there was not so much to fear.

—Ms. Snyder is the author of “Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer,Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing.”

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Published on May 02, 2015 13:01 • 62 views

April 26, 2015

I am honored to have received such a gorgeously written review by Wendy Smith in The Daily Beast, one that captures exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the book.  She starts by praising Eye of the Beholder for being “one of those engaging books that make you smarter without making you suffer,” and ends with “This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.”

How Two Dutch Geniuses Taught Us to See
Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.

Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the scientist were contemporaries in 17th century Delft, where each man pioneered breakthroughs that upended conventional wisdom about reality.

Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing is one of those engaging books that makes you smarter without making you suffer. Laura J. Snyder’s scholarly yet accessible narrative offers refresher courses on the Scientific Revolution and the golden age of Dutch art, contextualized in a lively portrait of 17th-century Dutch society and personalized in the stories of two brilliant innovators who happened to live in the same bustling town.

Johannes Vermeer and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek were born and baptized in Delft within four days of each other in 1632, although it’s unclear whether or not they knew each other. Snyder makes a vivid and persuasive argument, however, that Vermeer’s paintings and Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic investigations were both instances of a new way of looking at the world, driven by advances in the science of optics and an emphasis on empirical observation that was congenial to the pragmatic Dutch in many different professions.

Leeuwenhoek, in fact, began his adult life as a cloth merchant; it was during his apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Snyder plausibly speculates, that he first used a convex lens to see something inaccessible to the naked eye, in this case the thread count of fabric. He was nearly 30 when a civil service appointment enabled him to devote most of his time to making his own lenses and the microscopes that contained them. By this time, around 1660, Vermeer was painting with the aid of a camera obscura, a device that passes light through a lens and projects the image on a flat surface, giving a much more accurate reproduction of how three-dimensional scenes look in two dimensions.

“The fascination with lenses pervaded both the artistic and the scientific communities,” Snyder contends. “These communities can be seen as one, united by the shared goal of investigating nature and the collective employment of optical devices.” Her sensitive exegeses of Vermeer’s work methods show him applying what he learned from the camera obscura about alterations in color and tone to the rich hues of A View of Delft and the variegated shadows of The Milkmaid. He mimicked the device’s variations of focus—middle ground sharp, foreground and background fuzzier—in The Lacemaker; what he saw through the camera obscura fueled his extraordinary sensitivity to different intensities of light, showcased in such bravura canvases as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.

None of this makes Vermeer a mindless transcriber of visual information, Snyder is careful to note; his technique “evok[ed] the way nature manifested itself to human vision. He was experimentally exploring the concept of sight.” Her deft pocket history of 17th-century scientists’ challenge to classical theories of vision, buttressed by the development of instruments like the telescope and microscope, shows increasing acceptance of the idea that human beings had to learn how to see; part of that process involved learning to see what was actually there, not what outdated ideas or religious dogma told them to expect to see.

It was certainly not what Leeuwenhoek expected when, in 1674, he looked at a drop of lake water through one of his microscopes and saw tiny creatures moving in it. He had discovered “a new world of living beings, a world never before seen, never before even imagined,” Snyder writes, her expressive prose capturing the excitement of the moment. Like Galileo, who some 60 years earlier had viewed the moon’s surface through a telescope, Leeuwenhoek used an optical instrument to observe things in nature formerly invisible to human eyes. Bacteria and sperm were among the other microscopic entities he was the first to identify.

Like the artists of the day, who jealously guarded their professional tools and techniques, Leeuwenhoek was secretive about his methods and refused to divulge the specifications of his microscopes. But the Royal Society of London, with which he corresponded to announce all his major discoveries, aimed to set science apart from such dubious disciplines as alchemy by stressing openness and repeatability; not until 1677, when English microscope pioneer Robert Hooke was able to discern miniscule animals frolicking in rainwater and show them to a group of Royal Society fellows, did the society officially accept Leeuwenhoek’s findings.

By then, Vermeer was dead, suddenly felled at age 43 by a “frenzy” that may have been a heart attack or stroke. He left his widow with ten dependent children and huge debts; the fact that Leeuwenhoek was appointed trustee of his beleaguered estate strongly suggests that the two men were acquainted. Snyder, as meticulous about evidence here as she was in her stimulating group biography of four 19th-century scientists (The Philosophical Breakfast Club), concludes only that this would be the “simplest” explanation.

Her main interest is not in any personal relationship Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek may have had, but in the shared spirit of empirical inquiry that made them avatars of an age that transformed the practice of both science and art. “Daring to know required, first of all, daring to see,” she reminds us in a vivid epilogue that links the guiding principle of the Scientific Revolution with the optical experiments performed by Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek in fields that did not seem as separate to them as they do to us. The book closes with a final glimpse at Vermeer’s 1668 painting The Astronomer, a figure possibly modeled on Leeuwenhoek, who leans toward a globe bathed in sunlight. In one marvelous paragraph, Snyder draws together images of mapmaking, light, and shadow to capture the 17th-century’s dream of the freer, more rational future. This poetic, inclusive approach to popular science writing makes Eye of the Beholder an unfailing pleasure to read.

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Published on April 26, 2015 12:11 • 38 views

Eye of the Beholder has received this delightful review from the Daily Mail in the UK.  I love how the author captured the experimental exuberance of the age!

A quick autopsy my love, then off to the ball: The eccentric behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and painter Johannes Vermeer

At 41 van Leeuwenhoek used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment
Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura 
Could Vermeer and van Leeuwenhoek have inspired each other’s work?


PUBLISHED: 16:00 EST, 23 April 2015 | UPDATED: 16:00 EST, 23 April 2015

Eye of the Beholder by Laura J Snyder (Head of Zeus, £25)

The behaviour of Dutch natural scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was nothing if not eccentric. In 1677, at the age of 41, he embarked on an extraordinarily gruesome experiment, using his body as a guinea pig.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (pictured in a portrait ) used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (pictured in a portrait ) used his body as a guinea pig in an experiment


He took three lice, nestled them among the hairs of his calf, rolled up a tight stocking so that the insects were bound to his leg and then left the stocking on and did not bathe for six days.

On the seventh day, he removed the stocking and counted more than 80 eggs but no young lice. In the interests of empiricism, the stocking went back on for another three days. Finally, the stocking came off to reveal at least 25 lice running up and down his leg.

‘This spectacle of all the young lice filled me with such aversion to the stocking,’ he wrote, ‘that I threw it, along with all the lice in it, out the window.’

He rubbed down his legs with ice, then took up his pen to calculate the louse’s reproduction rate. He estimated that two pairs of lice could generate 10,000 young in only eight weeks.

While Leeuwenhoeck was thus engaged, another great Dutchman, Johannes Vermeer, was intent on his own more genteel studies in his house on the opposite side of Delft’s market square.

Draped in a black cloth, Vermeer spent hours peering into the box-like interior of a camera obscura, an ancestor of the photographic camera. This was a light-tight wooden chamber with a hole or lens on one side, which could be used to project an image of a scene on to a glass plate or wall. They had been used for party tricks and for viewing solar eclipses but were increasingly being employed by artists to render paintings more lifelike than ever.

The experiments of these two men are the subject of Laura J. Snyder’s new biography. She asks an intriguing question: could Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, who were born in the same week, lived and worked their entire lives in an area not much larger than a football pitch, and who had friends in common, have exchanged ideas and inspired each other’s work?

This is much more than a joint biography. It is a portrait of an age of insatiable intellectual curiosity.

The 17th century gave us an inventory of instruments which far extended man’s understanding of the world: accurate thermometers and barometers, the air pump, the pendulum clock, improvements to the telescope, the refinement of the microscope. Leeuwenhoek’s mastery of lens-grinding saw him build a microscope capable of magnification up to 480 times.

Scientists and dilettanti assembled cabinets of curiosity filled with rare animal and shell specimens. Leeuwenhoek’s collection included the eye of a whale, pickled in brandy.

Anatomical theatres for the dissection of bodies were built in Padua, Bologna, Leiden, Delft and Amsterdam. According to one chronicler, sumptuously dressed ladies would attend dissections of the bodies of executed criminals and then go straight to that night’s ball.

Snyder moves effortlessly not just between Vermeer’s studio and Leeuwenhoek’s laboratory, but all over Europe, from the universities of Italy, to the halls of the Royal Society in London, then the world’s pre-eminent scientific institution. Leeuwenhoeck wrote about 300 letters to the Royal Society, charting 50 years of experiments. He addressed them as ‘curious gentlemen dabblers’.

One of his great discoveries was the observation of thousands of swimming creatures, which he called animaculae or little animals, in murky water. He estimated there could be more than eight million of them in a single drop. Later generations would recognise them as bacteria.

He was also the first scientist to observe the existence and movement of sperm. No one had yet seen the human sperm or the egg or understood their part in reproduction.

Leeuwenhoek politely wrote to the President of the Royal Society: ‘What I investigate is only what, without sinfully defiling myself, remains as a residue of conjugal coitus.’

One feels a certain amount of sympathy for his wife, Cornelia. What with the lice and the post-conjugal microscope experiments, she must have been a very patient woman.

The great pleasure of this book is how Snyder makes the science clear to the layman. I have a degree in history of art and only one measly science GCSE in biology. Yet I was left more eager to peer down the lens at one of Leeuwenhoek’s slides, than to stand before even the most pellucid of Vermeer’s exquisite paintings.

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Published on April 26, 2015 12:03 • 43 views

April 9, 2015

Science writer Philip Ball wrote a lovely essay for Nature connecting Eye of the Beholder with Galileo’s Telescope, another new book having to do with the use of optical instruments in the 17th century.  Ball writes “Snyder beautifully evokes the ambience of late-seventeenth-century Delft. . . . She is revelatory about Vermeer’s aims and methods, helping to explain what is so mesmeric about his work.”

I’m a big fan of Philip Ball’s writings, so his praise of my book is a real thrill.



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Published on April 09, 2015 19:43 • 31 views

March 30, 2015

I was delighted to see this terrific (and lengthy) review of Eye of the Beholder in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal. I’m particularly pleased that the author, Jonathan Lopez, mentioned our colleague Walter Liedtke, whose recent tragic death was a blow to us all. And my son loved the reference to Leeuwenhoek as “the shambling, sighing, self-deprecating Columbo of 17th century science!”



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Published on March 30, 2015 14:27 • 82 views

March 26, 2015

Eye of the Beholder received a lovely review by Graeme Wood in The American Scholar. 

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Published on March 26, 2015 08:37 • 37 views

December 4, 2014

Even though books have not yet come off the printing press (as I like to imagine it) the roll-out of Eye of the Beholder has begun!  The book received its first review: a prepublication Kirkus review.  It’s very complimentary, and I particularly love the final line:

“Ingenious, lucid and revealing look at the lives of two brilliant men who changed our way of seeing the world.”

The next few months promise to be exciting—and nerve-racking.  I look forward to sharing the journey with my readers.


EYE OF THE BEHOLDER Johannes Vermeer, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

Author: Laura J. Snyder

Review Issue Date: December 15, 2014

Online Publish Date: December 7, 2014

Publisher:Norton Pages: 416 Price ( Hardcover ): $27.95

Publication Date: March 16, 2015

ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-393-07746-9

Category: Nonfiction

A fine addition to the burgeoning genre of dual biography of great figures whose lives were related, if often distantly. Snyder (Philosophy/St. John’s Univ.; The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, 2010, etc.) chronicles the lives of two significant Dutchmen: Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), founder of microbiology, and his contemporary, painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Born almost simultaneously in 1632, they worked barely a block apart. Leeuwenhoek was executor of Vermeer’s estate after his death, but historians still debate whether they were more than just mere acquaintances. A prosperous merchant, Leeuwenhoek grew fascinated by lenses. Spectacles and magnifying glasses had existed for centuries and microscopes for decades, but the existing crude compound microscopes were limited to about a tenfold magnification. Using a technique he kept secret (only rediscovered in 1957), Leeuwenhoek made tiny glass beads that magnified 200 to 500 times. His microscopes were complex devices that were difficult to use, but through them, Leeuwenhoek discovered formerly invisible bacteria and other unknown organisms, flabbergasting but ultimately convincing Britain’s Royal Society, whose members read his letters, his only scientific publications. Aiming at an accurate depiction of nature, 17th-century Dutch painters were as obsessive in their studies as scientists. Snyder accompanies her biography of Vermeer with an intense, relentlessly detailed analysis of his technique and use of color, arguing that his sublime, luminous style accorded with the new optical theories. He certainly used technical devices, including the camera obscura, much as early scientists did to experiment with light and uncover its properties. “[A]rtists—like Vermeer—have always relied upon science and technology to push the limits of their arts,” writes the author, “and they will always do so, especially when science opens up a new way of seeing the world.” Ingenious, lucid and revealing look at the lives of two brilliant men who changed our way of seeing the world.

16 pages of color illustrations

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Published on December 04, 2014 19:41 • 53 views

August 22, 2014

Check back soon for a new and very much improved website introducing myself and my books—as well as a revived blog!

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Published on August 22, 2014 09:32 • 40 views

May 24, 2014

My review of Sarah Dry’s The Newton Papers is in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

A Reputation in Constant Motion

It was claimed that Newton’s writings on alchemy and theology were products of mental derangement.


The Newton Papers

By Sarah Dry 
Oxford, 238 pages, $29.95

In the 1940s, a visitor to the Sir Isaac Newton Library on the campus of the Babson Institute (now Babson College) in Wellesley, Mass., could find herself transported to the front parlor of the house on St. Martin’s Street in London where Newton had lived between 1710 and 1725. Grace Knight Babson, wife of the shrewd investor and millionaire Roger Babson, had purchased the room—including its original pine-paneled walls and carved mantelpiece—and brought the pieces to Massachusetts, where it was reassembled as a tribute to the man who had lived and worked within it.

Roger Babson had made his fortune, he said, by espying Newton’s “law of action and reaction” in business cycles. To Babson and his wife, Newton was a seer who had divined the laws of markets as well as of nature. This was a quirky view of Newton, to be sure. But from the moment Newton died in 1727, different visions of the man arose. In “The Newton Papers,” Sarah Dry tells the story of these competing images of Newton by following the trail of the manuscripts Newton left behind.

At his death, Newton left some eight million words written on what an assessor of his estate called “loose and foul sheets,” unlabeled, tied with string and stuffed into boxes in no apparent order. His nephew John Conduitt planned to use them to write a biography of Newton, whom he idolized as a kind of intellectual saint. Conduitt soon realized the papers contained not only mathematical and scientific notes but also writings on alchemy, theology and church history—some demonstrating that his uncle held the heretical belief of “Anti-Trinitarianism,” which denied the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The incredible bulk of papers overwhelmed Conduitt, and he died in 1737 before completing his task. Newton’s estate passed to his descendants, the Portsmouth family, and most of the manuscripts were deposited in their home at Hurstbourne Park. The secretary of the Royal Society, Samuel Horsley, proposed publishing a complete edition of Newton’s writings in 1775 and was granted access to the papers. In the end only nine items—all related to Newton’s scientific pursuits—were printed. Horsley abandoned the plan of publishing the complete manuscripts, “most likely,” Ms. Dry speculates, “because of the papers’ heretical content.” After Horsley, no one was interested in the papers for decades.

Ms. Dry contends that for 150 years after Newton’s death the papers were “hidden from sight” because they threatened Newton’s image as a “paragon of rationality,” showing him to be “an obsessive heretic” interested in turning base metals into gold. But it is not clear that the papers were suppressed so much as ignored. In the author’s own telling, few thought it worthwhile to consult them. The indifference to Newton’s papers in the 18th century is even more astonishing—especially given today’s compulsion to pore over the ephemera of the famous—than the conjecture that the papers were purposely hidden away.

In the 19th century, Ms. Dry asserts, interest in unpublished letters and manuscripts suddenly became “all the craze.” She connects this to the scientific spirit of the age. Biographical claims, like scientific ones, required evidence, and so biographers began scouring unpublished material like naturalists seeking fossils in geological strata. Biographical studies of Newton started to appear, each painting a different image of the man.

After examining letters written by Newton’s acquaintances, the French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Biot claimed in 1822 that Newton had suffered a “mental derangement” in his late 40s—and that his writings on alchemy and theology were products of his madness. In a book published in 1831, Scottish physicist David Brewster tried to defend Newton’s mental health but was forced to agree that Newton did have a temporary nervous breakdown after a fire destroyed his laboratory. Yet, unlike Biot, he played down the heretical nature of the religious writings.

The banker-turned-historian of science Francis Baily inspected the papers left by John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, and found evidence that Newton was a vindictive and duplicitous man who had surreptitiously added a scathingly critical preface to Flamsteed’s own book. Brewster again rode to Newton’s defense with a massive two-volume biography that appeared in 1855.

Brewster had requested, and was granted, permission to examine the Newton papers at Hurstbourne Park. In the 1880s, most of Newton’s scientific manuscripts were donated by the Portsmouths and deposited in the Cambridge University Library, where they remained ignored by scholars for 60 more years. Finally in 1939, much of the stash remaining at Hurstbourne—the material dealing with alchemy and theology—was auctioned off. The economist John Maynard Keynes purchased and studied Newton’s alchemical manuscripts, concluding that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” Biblical scholar Abraham Yahuda bought the theological material and came to see Newton as a “monotheist” who wished to “extend the universalistic character of Christianity.” At a time when Jews were being persecuted and murdered across Europe, Yahuda saw Newton as a kind of theological fellow traveler.

Ms. Dry’s style can be overwrought, with sentences like: “The papers of Isaac Newton waited, like a fairytale princess waiting for the prince who would bestow the kind of kiss to end centuries of enchantment.” 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.

Ms. Snyder is the author of “The Philosophical Breakfast Club.”

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Published on May 24, 2014 18:17 • 41 views