William Bennett Munro Memorial Seminar

Thursday, April 5, 2012
4:00pm to 5:00pm
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Dabney Hall 110 (Treasure Room)
The Afterlife of Isaac Newton: Accidents of the Archive and the History of Science
Sarah Dry, Independent Scholar,
Isaac Newton died a famous man. Yet he let left many secrets behind, in a trunk full of his private writings on, among other things, theology, church history, alchemy and his work as Master of the Mint. This talk traces the long and meandering path of Newton s papers from the darkness of that trunk to the virtual light of day (today many of them are freely available online). Key moments include the publication of several new biographies of Newton (and his contemporary Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed) based on new evidence in the 1830s, the separation of the scientific from the non-scientific portion of his private papers in the 1870s and, finally, the sale of the remaining private papers at auction by Sotheby s in 1936, resulting in their dispersal across the world. As a result, it was only in the 1970s that historians of science began to have access to Newton s theological writings, some 250 years after Newton s death.

I discuss how such accidents of the archive have affected scholarly interpretations of the relationship between Newton s natural philosophy and his other interests, in particular theology and church history. Since studies of Isaac Newton have played a pivotal role in the development of history of science, in particular during the 1830s and again in the post-WWII era, the strange and unlikely history of Newton s archive has some bearing on the history of the discipline as a whole.

For more information, please contact Sinikka Elvington by phone at Ext. 1724 or by email at elvington@hss.caltech.edu.