Newton and the Origin of Civilization

Newton and the Origin of Civilization

Jed Z. Buchwald
Mordechai Feingold
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 608
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1r2fqd
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  • Book Info
    Newton and the Origin of Civilization
    Book Description:

    Isaac Newton'sChronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, published in 1728, one year after the great man's death, unleashed a storm of controversy. And for good reason. The book presents a drastically revised timeline for ancient civilizations, contracting Greek history by five hundred years and Egypt's by a millennium.Newton and the Origin of Civilizationtells the story of how one of the most celebrated figures in the history of mathematics, optics, and mechanics came to apply his unique ways of thinking to problems of history, theology, and mythology, and of how his radical ideas produced an uproar that reverberated in Europe's learned circles throughout the eighteenth century and beyond.

    Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold reveal the manner in which Newton strove for nearly half a century to rectify universal history by reading ancient texts through the lens of astronomy, and to create a tight theoretical system for interpreting the evolution of civilization on the basis of population dynamics. It was during Newton's earliest years at Cambridge that he developed the core of his singular method for generating and working with trustworthy knowledge, which he applied to his study of the past with the same rigor he brought to his work in physics and mathematics. Drawing extensively on Newton's unpublished papers and a host of other primary sources, Buchwald and Feingold reconcile Isaac Newton the rational scientist with Newton the natural philosopher, alchemist, theologian, and chronologist of ancient history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4518-7
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    In 2006, archaeologists announced that the ancient Minoan kingdom on the island of Crete was a century older than had been thought. Radiocarbon dating of tree rings and seeds, coupled to statistics, placed the volcanic explosion of Thera, which likely ended the Minoan period, to between 1660 and 1613 BCE. This had disturbing consequences. It had been long held that the Minoan period overlapped the New Kingdom in Egypt, which began about 1550 BCE, and that contacts existed between the two civilizations. The revised dating made this impossible, since at the earlier time the Egyptians were ruled by Canaanite foreigners,...

  7. 1 Troubled Senses
    (pp. 8-43)

    In 1583, the Huguenot scholar Joseph Scaliger published hisDe Emendatione Temporum. There he examined the chronologies of Babylon, Egypt, and Persia, as well as those of Greece and Rome, arguing for an amended structure based in substantial part on antique reports that could be given astronomical significance, in particular eclipses, as well as on ancient calendars. Scaliger was hardly the only one to use astronomical evidence to date the past. Another Protestant, the theologian Heinrich Bünting, had employed eclipse reports with great technical proficiency in hisChronologia(1590).¹ Scaliger and Bünting were followed by others in the seventeenth century...

  8. 2 Troubled Numbers
    (pp. 44-106)

    In 1673, Hevelius published the first part of hisMachinae coelestis, which provided verbal descriptions and elaborate plates of the naked-eye devices that he had constructed for determining stellar coordinates. The very next year Hooke took umbrage at the publication and attacked it in print in a series ofAnimadversions. TheAnimadversion’sfulsome praise for Hevelius’ skill weakly compensated its obvious disdain for the astronomer’s methods. For Hooke was not only certain that naked-eye observations could not possibly match those performed with a telescope equipped with cross-hairs, he had through Oldenburg previously urged Hevelius to adopt the new apparatus.¹ Hevelius...

  9. 3 Erudition and Chronology in Seventeenth-Century England
    (pp. 107-125)

    Only once did Isaac Newton address his chronological studies in public. Angered by the unauthorized 1725 French translation of the abstract of hisChronology of Ancient Kingdoms, he lashed out at the Venetian abbé Antonio Conti—the “friend” who had “betrayed” Newton’s confidence—and then proceeded to downplay the nature and extent of his interests: “When I lived atCambridge, I us’d sometimes to refresh myself with History and Chronology for a While, when I was weary with other Studies.”¹ As we shall see, for Newton chronology was anything but a diversion; indeed, the lion’s share of Newton’s investigations was...

  10. 4 Isaac Newton on Prophecies and Idolatry
    (pp. 126-163)

    On February 9, 1674/5, Newton left Cambridge for London, remaining there some five weeks. It was probably his first visit to the capital since 1668 and he made the most of it. On February 18 he was formally admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society—to which he had been elected three years earlier—and he attended at least two of its weekly meetings as well as conferred privately with several distinguished members, including Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. Newton also may have taken the opportunity to inspect a major new tourist attraction that had just come to London:...

  11. 5 Aberrant Numbers: The Propagation of Mankind before and after the Deluge
    (pp. 164-194)

    The Bible was universally perceived as the only authoritative account of “prehistory,” its divine authorship compelling unqualified assent. The first chapters of Genesis accordingly entailed that mankind had expanded quite rapidly from a common ancestor—both before and, especially, after the Deluge. After all, had not God blessed Adam and Eve and commanded them to “Be fruitful, and multiply, [and] replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28)? Had not the same blessing been repeated twice, in the same chapter, to Noah and his sons (Gen. 9:1, 7)? And were not benedictions made subsequently to the Hebrews? More specifically, had not Sarah been...

  12. 6 Newtonian History
    (pp. 195-221)

    Newton penned the “Original of Monarchies” in early summer 1702, following the death of William III, judging by his calculating in the manuscript that 635½ years had elapsed since the coronation of William I in 1066, and twenty-eight monarchs had ruled over England.¹ At the heart of the new project was the question of whether large empires had existed prior to the four monarchies mentioned by Daniel, namely Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. If not, and Newton believed this to be the case, how to account for the seemingly well-documented counter examples of ancient empires, namely Egypt and Assyria? For...

  13. 7 Text and Testimony
    (pp. 222-245)

    Three sources particularly exercised Newton as he proceeded to drastically abbreviate ancient history: thePersikaof Ctesias of Cnidus, theAegyptiacaof Manetho, and the Marmor Parium—key sources for the history of, respectively, Assyria, Egypt, and Greece.¹ Before the late 1690s, Newton rarely cited these sources; he certainly did not consider them problematic. Yet as his revised chronology took shape, he engaged critically with them, undermining as much as possible their credibility, and explaining to himself—as well as to others—his reasoning.

    Ctesias composed thePersicain an effort to refute Herodotus’ account of the Persian wars, and...

  14. 8 Interpreting Words
    (pp. 246-306)

    More than three decades separate Newton’s explorations of astronomical chronology from the youthful engagement with problems of perception and measurement that we examined in chapters 1 and 2. By the time of his first computations in the area, shortly before the publication of theOpticks, Newton’s understanding of measurement had been refined through years of experimental and computational experience, not the least of which occurred as he worked on the motions of bodies in fluids during the 1680s. The final composition of theOpticksbrought him back to issues raised by measurement which, joined with his work on the calendar...

  15. 9 Publication and Reaction
    (pp. 307-330)

    The July 1754 issue of thePhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Societyincluded an article by the Oxford orientalist and astronomer George Costard, devoted to the eclipse Thales is said to have predicted.Inter aliaCostard controverted Newton’s dating of the eclipse but promptly “absolved” him of blame on the grounds thatThe Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms“never had the finishing hand of its great author, and it is well known now in what manner it came abroad.”¹ Upon reading the article, Zachary Pearce, then Bishop of Bangor, approached Costard via an intermediary to inquire about the basis for such...

  16. 10 The War on Newton in England
    (pp. 331-352)

    Tonson’s willingness to fork out a sizeable sum of money to secure the publication rights of theChronologyattests to the considerable public interest the book generated. The poet Edward Young informed a friend on June 5, 1727 that Londoners anticipated “with Impatience” the publication of Newton’s theological works; five months later, the Scottish divine Robert Wodrow learned from Colin Maclaurin that theChronologywas in print “and there are very great expectations from it.”¹ Testimony to the burgeoning excitement is also signalled by the efforts of other publishers to capitalize on public interest. In late September 1728, John Peele...

  17. 11 The War on Newton in France
    (pp. 353-380)

    Whiston’s English critique was at least founded directly on Newton’s printedChronology. The same cannot be said of the second French response to reach print, namely that of the Jesuit Etienne Souciet, for it appeared the year of Newton’s death. Souciet had been implicated in the affair of theAbrégé, though it was Fréret who had been inveigled into writing a critique perhaps with Souciet’s assistance. Once Newton published his dismissive response to Fréret’s critique, Souciet himself joined the fray, responding at extraordinary length in his 1727Receuil. Newton was still alive while Souciet was writing his reply, and Souciet...

  18. 12 The Demise of Chronology
    (pp. 381-422)

    A few weeks before the publication of Whiston’s attack, Arthur Bedford’s far longerAnimadversions upon . . . the Chronology of Ancient Kingdomsappeared. Consumed with religious zeal and passionate for music, Bedford believed that “the restoration of church music had a providential purpose and would play a role in the conversion of the Jews to Christianity.” Equally fervent was his crusade against stage-plays and on behalf of the reformation of manners and morals—so much so, that he was seen by some “as a crazed man.”¹ In his introduction toThe Scripture Chronology Demonstrated by Astronomical Calculation(1730), Bedford...

  19. 13 Evidence and History
    (pp. 423-436)

    Throughout these pages we have traced Newton’s ways with evidence, whether in his laboratory, in the mint, or within the ancient texts that he pored over and copied again and again. We followed the young Newton at Cambridge, where he developed his early thoughts and techniques for working with the discrepant data that observation and laboratory work produced. There he developed a related way of thinking about the inevitable errors introduced by the senses, one that led him to a radically unusual procedure for producing trustworthy numbers out of unreliable ones. That method eventually inflected his novel ways with ancient...

  20. Appendix A Signs, Conventions, Dating, and Definitions
    (pp. 437-440)
  21. Appendix B Newton’s Computational Methods
    (pp. 441-446)
  22. Appendix C Commented Extracts from Newton’s MS Calculations
    (pp. 447-463)
  23. Appendix D Placing Colures on the Original Star Globe
    (pp. 464-467)
  24. Appendix E Hesiod, Thales, and Stellar Risings and Settings
    (pp. 468-488)
  25. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 489-514)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 515-528)