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Isaac Newton’s Notes Show He Was Obsessed With the Apocalypse

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Isaac Newton's Notes Show He Was Obsessed With the Apocalypse 2

Best known for his theory of universal gravitation, Isaac Newton was one of the most famous scientists of his time. But he kept some of his ideas private and unpublished, including his work on alchemy, apocalypses, and Egypt’s Great Pyramid. Some of his notes on these topics were recently sold at auction for £378,000.

The notes date to around 1680, when Newton was looking for proof of his theory of gravity. “Today, these seem disparate areas of study–but they didn’t seem that way to Newton in the 17th century,” Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s manuscript specialist, told the Observer.

Newton believed the ancient Greeks knew how to correctly measure the circumference of the Earth. In the intervening centuries, humans had lost the knowledge of how to measure and what the stade represented, he thought. One measurement put the circumference at 400,000 stades, a unit he would need to convert to be of any use to his theory of gravity.

Newton also wanted to understand the cubit, the measurement the Egyptians had used when building the Great Pyramid. He combed through ancient sources and studied John Greaves’s Pyramidographia (1646), trying to calculate the size of bricks and dimensions of tunnels. The cubit would allow him to reconstruct, if only figuratively, Solomon’s Temple, supposedly the site of the apocalypse.

“An exact knowledge of the Temple’s architecture and dimensions was therefore needed to correctly interpret the Bible’s deep and hidden meanings,” according to Sotheby’s auction listing for Newton’s notes.

Newton’s deep interest in alchemy didn’t become widely known until well after his death, when the Earl of Portsmouth bought his papers in 1936. In 2018, his “recipe” for making a philosopher’s stone went up for auction. “Newton was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life,” James Voelkel, curator of rare books at Othmer Library of Chemical History, told The Washington Post in 2016. “These alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands.”

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The notes that were sold are actually a little singed. The story is that Newton’s dog set them alight when he knocked a candle over – essentially the 17th-century version of “the dog ate my alchemy homework.”

If you’re looking for more news on anything apocalypse-related, check out the heartbreaking secret behind Marvel’s Apocalypse’s Villainy, and pack up your treasure-hunting goods since National Treasure 3 is in development.

Jenny McGrath is a science writer for IGN. She never tweets, but here she is @JennyMcGeez.

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