cover image Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer

Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer

Michael White. Perseus Books Group, $27 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-201-48301-7

The father of modern empirical science, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was also a practicing alchemist who spent more of his time involved in arcane investigations of magic, prophecy and hermetic secrets than in rationalist pursuits. Neither sensationalizing nor overplaying Newton's interest in mysticism, this superb, demythologizing biography shatters the conventional portrait of the man of pure intellect, giving us instead an obsessive mystic, a supreme egoist who saw himself as a Christ-like interpreter of divine knowledge. White (coauthor, Stephen Hawking--A Life in Science) reveals a multifaceted Newton--the fatherless recluse emotionally scarred by a mother who abandoned him to unloving grandparents at age three; the hustling money lender at Cambridge; the closeted follower of Arianism, a heretical Christian sect that led him to loathe Roman Catholicism and to see all of creation as a code to be cracked. White cogently argues that alchemy, far from being a diversion, helped inspire Newton's discovery of universal gravitation as well as his belief that microcosmic processes mirror the macrocosm. His portrait of a secretive, vain, vitriolic genius lusting for power, wealth and status is unsettling. Photos. (Jan.)