How could a precious stone burn 20 years of Isaac's research?
This refers to the most famous Isaac since the ancient patriarch mentioned in the Bible: Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), one of the most important scientists of all time. The story goes that Newton's dog, Diamond (the "precious stone" of the tweet), upset a candle that set manuscripts amounting to twenty years of Newton's research aflame (depicted above).
At this level, the tweet is simply a clue that Isaac Newton will make some appearance in The Lost Symbol, much as he did in The Da Vinci Code, although perhaps at greater length. However, this is only the surface level of the clue. The clue begs the question:
Just what research was destroyed in this fire?For Newton was a man of many, many interests, the depths of some of which only became known in the 20th century with the rediscovery of some of Newton's previously neglected papers. As it happens, Newton privately conducted researches into esoteric spirituality (such as the precise dimensions of the Temple built by Solomon), and apocalyptic religion (such as the biblical prophecies of Daniel and John). He wrote theological works, never published under his name, in which he explained that the Christian church had gone astray at the Council of Nicea (which will certainly remind Dan Brown fans of The Da Vinci Code).
Newton himself held highly unorthodox ideas about religion, and was a closet Arian (a believer, not in the Trinity, but in God the Father as the actual creator of Christ). Arianism was condemned as heresy by Catholic and Anglican alike in Newton's day, and if his Arian beliefs had been known publicly, Newton could have been in serious trouble with the law. (In passing, I should note that I would not be surprised if Dan Brown turns out to have a soft spot in his heart for Arianism in his fiction, as Arianism provides just the sort of Jesus who could have a child with Mary Magdalene, as Brown alleges in The Da Vinci Code. There are other unconventional Christian beliefs that would accomplish this, too -- some with intriguing ties to Freemasonry, I might add -- but Arianism will do.) [Incidentally: the Arian faith has nothing to do with the Aryan racial theories of the European fascists of the 20th century.]
In particular, though, Newton was fascinated by alchemy, to which he devoted over a quarter-century of his life. Newton's involvement in alchemy was so deep and intense that one of his biographers, Michael White, titled his 1997 book Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer.
That there was a fire in Newton's laboratory, some biographers and historians doubt. No one can doubt, though, that Newton's health declined beginning in the autumn of 1692, culminating in some sort of "breakdown" in the summer of 1693, when he acted strangely and out of character, insulted former associates, was plagued with insomnia lasting five days at a time, and so forth. Some called him mad. Some attributed this to the effects of a fire that destroyed his manuscripts; to this way of thinking, what Newton lost in the fire was so important to him that it affected his mental and emotional stability.
Was it scientific research destroyed in the fire? One of Newton's 19th century biographers, fellow Fellow (!) of the Royal Society David Brewster, said that the loss of materials like this could never have had such an effect on Newton:
The loss of a few experimental records could never have disturbed the equilibrium of a mind like his. If they were the records of discoveries, the discoveries, themselves indestructible, would have been afterwards given to the world. If they were merely the details of experimental results, a little time could have easily reproduced them. (David Brewster, 1855, Memoirs of the life, writings, and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, vol. 2, p. 133. Available through Googlebooks here.)
Brewster makes this argument to undercut the idea that there had been a fire. However, what if there were a fire -- but it consumed, not the results of conventional scientific experiments and discoveries, but materials that really could not be reproduced easily, or without great trouble or risk?
Like the records of mystical visions? Or alchemical experiments, involving not a few hours of work as in Newton's optical experiments, but months or even years of careful distillation? Or meticulous calculations involving the dimensions of Solomon's Temple, or the Apocalypse of the last days, calculations twenty years in the making? Or 'heretical' Arian writings that Newton had composed secretly over the course of decades? Or the results of researches into ceremonial magic? Or Rosicrucian symbolism? (Experiments in optics, say, are easy to reproduce in a few hours. Historical, linguistic, or mathematical research -- that's another story altogether. Add in alchemical research, and it's entirely another story.)
Yes, there are quite a lot of things that Newton could have been working on, that, if destroyed, could not easily have been replaced -- arcane heresies of science and religion prominent among them. No wonder Dan Brown's publisher is dropping hints about Isaac Newton.
(My thanks go out to "UDbmas," a reader of this blog, whose comment on my post, "Sorry for the Brief Hiatus," directed me to Brewster's biography of Newton.)
[The image was obtained from Wikimedia Commons via Wikipedia. The original engraving was created by Morel in Paris in 1874. The original and its image are in the public domain, per Bridgeman vs. Corel.]
(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)