Corpus Newtonicum

The Newton I never knew

When Isaac Newton died in 1727 he left a rich legacy in terms of physics and mathematics. He also left about 9 million words of draft materials on thousands of folios, reused enveloppes and letters, just about every spare inch of paper he could lay his hands on. These materials do not contain the obvious natural philosophical texts and calculations; most of them are on alchemy, historiography and theology. By the end of the 20th century it dawned upon historians of science that the Newton we knew was not the Newton that was. Instead we meet a deeply spiritual man, spending most of his time studying the Biblical prophesies from the books of Daniel and Revelations, reading alchemical texts and performing many experiments, and minuously composing a history of the ancient world. And doing some natural philosophy in between.

As of 2014, the majority of Newton’s manuscripts have been transcribed and made accessible by the Newton Project. A painstaking effort that took the best of 15 years of diligently trying to decypher Newton’s handwriting and making sense of sometimes heavily deleted or damaged pages, these texts have now become available to a wider audience. And they are accompanied by their own mysteries. Newton scholars agree that Newton did not intend to publish his theological and historical materials (the posthumous publications have been constructed by others); so why did he put so much effort in minutiously crafting and designing sentences, chapters, paragraphs & footnotes? We have over 50 versions of particular texts, each showing many signs of Newton editing, recasting, deleting and recreating his text. How are we to make sense of this?

Throughout the centuries the many manuscripts have been whimsically ordered and reordered, destroying any original order Newton might have employed. Scattered all over the world, these manuscripts have now been reunited in digital form. For the first time in the history of science, we can start with recreating Newton’s ordering, Newton’s working methods, Newton’s brain…

Digital editing

Under the heading Corpus Newtonicum this blog will document the proces of reproducing and reconstructing Newton’s methodology. First and foremost, we are in need of a fundamental theory of digital editing. Whereas most classical theories of editing take a published text (or a composition of a number of these) as their starting point, Newton’s draft materials were not meant to be published and there is no published volume to relate to. And secondly, many of today’s digital editions take some advantage of their digital nature, but are in essence classical editions in a digital jacket, accompanied by useful tools. There must be more to digital editing than just redressing! A new theory of digital editing should take full advantage of the digital world and assist in answering questions of reconstruction, and Newton’s materials are the ideal candidate for field testing. To be continued!


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