Professor Robert Iliffe - Newton
Professor of History of Science at Oxford.
Co-Director of the Oxford Centre for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.
General Editor of the Newton Project.
Editor of History of Science from 2001-8.
Co-editor of Annals of Science.
A Very Short Introduction to Newton (OUP 2007).
Priest of Nature: the Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton, (OUP 2017.)
Co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Isaac Newton, 2nd ed. (CUP, 2016).
Q: Tell us, please, about your background and how you became interested in Sir Isaac Newton.
A: I did a degree in philosophy and physics and became interested in the history of science. I became interested in the historical relations between science and religion. One day I looked at some Newton documents, the theological writings and spent a lot of time trying to understand Newton. I wanted to understand what he actually believed.
Q: What is the Newton project?
A: It’s an online, freely available, digital edition of Newton’s writings. By 2027, three hundred years since his death, we want everything he wrote to be available online.
Q: How would you describe Newton the person, personality wise?
A: He is a complicated person. Most of the things we hear about him, are, what a wonderful guy he was. There is a sense that he is a very generous person to people. But there's another side to Newton that his enemies saw, pathological, destructive; There's a paranoid element to him; as he saw himself as a Christian, as a scholar.
Q: How does one evaluate Newton’s scientific contribution from the perspective of the 21st century?
A: He synthesized a number of elements of the scientific revolution. He was an ambitious scholar, courageous; he's a very independent minded person, He brought together aspects of the great work of the heroes of the scientific revolution. He created the pinnacle of work done in that period and laid the basis for work to be done in the 18th and 19th centuries. They built on the core of Newton’s great discoveries: the three laws of motion, the concepts of mass and force and the general law of universal gravitation which was difficult for people to accept because it doesn't make sense, but the evidence tells you it's true.
Q: What were Newton's religious beliefs?
A: He had a very peculiar kind of religion. It’s unorthodox, highly idiosyncratic and independent. He lives a Judeo-Christian life as he sees it; based on Noachide fundamentals. He was a member of the Anglican church but a peculiar one. His beliefs are difficult to hold within the church. He was a serious theologian.
Q: Would you say his religious beliefs drove his scientific research? What was the relationship between the two?
A: I think it’s difficult to prove either of those. His scientific beliefs did not drive his religious ones. He spends a small part of his life on those scientific pursuits. His real dedication throughout his life is to study the word of G-d.
There are relations between religion and natural philosophy; there are ways in which he sees them as connected, but he also sees them as unconnected.
Q: Jewish tradition posits that the temple in Jerusalem is a microcosm of the world. Newton was fascinated by Solomon and the temple and saw something very special and unique about it. What did he see in it?
A: I think there are three things, He has different projects. One project is to prove that the most ancient people of all time were Newtonians and he thinks that the Hebrews worshiped in what they thought was G-d’s temple. The second element is that the Jewish temple and Tabernacle are the templates for Newton's spiritual understanding of G-d’s relationship with his people. G-d created the universe for us to study. The project of the Temple was metrological; he tried to understand the ancient cubit measurement.
Q: Newton’s familiarity with Maimonides. Is that a part of his whole approach to religion?
A: His interest in Maimonides is largely in terms of idolatry. Newton spent vast amounts of time reading translations of Maimonides. He believes that there is an innate human tendency towards idolatry. For Newton, Maimonides lays out in detail what the true religion is in opposition to idolatry.