The Plank

Very Superstitious

By and

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby thinks he's being clever when he asks if a great University like Cambridge would recruit to its physics department a "theology-and Bible-drenched individual" who "forecast the date of the Apocalypse" and calculated that the world was created in 3988 B.C.

I would certainly hope not. But the man to whom Jacoby devotes his column is Sir Isaac Newton, appointed to a Mathematics chair in 1668. No disrespect to Sir Isaac, but it's not a risky venture to posit that the Newtons of today don't believe in some of the silly things Newton did 400 years ago (like alchemy, and the "domination of an intelligent and powerful Being" over the universe). And, were Newton alive today, I'd like to think he wouldn't believe those silly things either. Jacoby claims Newton as one of his own, historically appropriating Newton for his contemporary anti-evolution agenda, thus besmirching one of the greatest minds in Western history. He writes that it was "axiomatic that religious inquiry and scientific investigation complemented each other." Axiomatic, indeed, in an age when denying the existence of God brought upon excommunication and other forms of state repression.

Not for nothing did John Maynard Keynes remark, upon examining Newton's large collection of papers relating to alchemy, that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians..." Indeed, the logical conclusion of Jacoby's argument is that university physics departments should teach students how to convert lead into gold.

Just as Abraham Lincoln was no proponent of racial equality, Newton was a man of his time. Both men deserve credit and praise for the peerless contributions they made in their day. Exalting the primitive (and no doubt once-commonly held) beliefs of a man who lived 400 years ago indicates Jacoby's bias towards the holds of 17th century superstition as opposed to 21st century reason.

--James Kirchick

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