He was the greatest scientist of his day-perhaps of all time. But while Isaac Newton was busy discovering the universal law of gravitation, he was also searching out hidden meanings in the Bible and pursuing the covert art of alchemy. NOVA explores the strange and complex mind of Isaac Newton, on Newton’s Dark Secrets, airing Tuesday, November 15, 2005 at 8PM on PBS on PBS (check local listings). Using docudrama scenes starring Scott Handy (Masterpiece Theatre’s Henry VIII) as Newton, NOVA recreates the unique climate of late 17th-century England, where a newfound fascination with science and mathematics coexisted with extreme views on religious doctrine. Newton shared both obsessions.
NOVA also covers Newton’s most important discoveries in mathematics, physics, and optics. And the program follows a detailed recreation of one of Newton’s little-known alchemical experiments, assembled by Bill Newman, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, who spent years deciphering Newton’s secret coded recipes.
Most people know of Newton as the father of modern science, but his tireless genius knew no bounds. A devout Christian, his meticulous study of the scriptures led him to conclude that both Catholicism and the Anglican Church of England were based on dangerous heresies. Prudently, he kept these opinions to himself.
Oddly enough, he often kept his remarkable scientific discoveries to himself as well. While a student at Cambridge University in the 1660s, he had to return home to escape an outbreak of the plague. Working largely from this country setting, he invented the branch of mathematics called calculus and began asking fundamental questions about the nature of force and motion that would later lead him to the universal law of gravitation. At the time, he published nothing on these breakthroughs.
Returning to full-time studies at Cambridge after the epidemic, he worked his way up to an appointment as the prestigious Lucasian professor of mathematics, a position now held by the noted physicist Stephen Hawking. Newton’s mathematics lectures were so notoriously difficult that few, if any, students attended them.
Newton also continued his optical experiments, which showed that white light is a mixture of all the colors of the rainbow, rather than being a pure form of light as was generally believed at that time.
In 1936 a huge cache of Newton’s papers turned up that revealed his lifelong passion for alchemy. Though today alchemy is classed with magic and pseudo-science, in the 17th century it was a respected form of natural inquiry that was methodically laying the foundation for modern chemistry.
But the crowning achievement of Newton’s career was his Principia Mathematica, an astonishing book that uses concepts of mass, force, motion, and gravity to explain everything from falling apples to orbiting planets. The mammoth work was sparked by a simple question from Newton’s friend Edmund Halley, discoverer of the periodic nature of the comet that bears his name. Halley merely wanted to know the shape of a planet’s orbit around the sun.
NOVA also delves into Newton’s religious studies, which he pursued with his characteristic zeal for finding unseen connections. One fixation was dating the Apocalypse based on clues in the Bible. It was recently announced that, according to Newton, the date for all the turmoil predicted in the book of Revelation is in our own century: 2060.
Whether it was in physics, alchemy, or theology, Newton was ceaselessly “looking for ultimate answers to questions,” says Indiana University historian Gale Christianson.
(c) 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation
About WGBH and PBS – Now in its thirty-second year of broadcasting, NOVA is produced for PBS by the WGBH Boston Science Unit. The director of the WGBH Boston Science Unit and senior executive producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell. Major corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Sprint and Google. Additional funding is provided by Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers. NOVA is closed captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers, and described for people who are blind or visually impaired by the Media Access Group at WGBH. The descriptive narration is available on the SAP channel of stereo TVs and VCRs. Newton’s Dark Secrets will be available on DVD and VHS. To order, visit shop.wgbh.org or call WGBH Boston Video at 800-949-8670.
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From NOVA (www,pbs.org/nova/newton)