The Author has himself acquainted the Publick, that the following Treatise was the fruit of his vacant hours, and the relief he sometimes had recourse to, when tired with his other studies. What an Idea does it raise of His abilities, to find that a Work of such labour and learning, as would have been a sufficient employment and glory for the whole life of another, was to him diversion only, and amusement!
Introduction to Isaac Newton’s Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, Amended, (Project Gutenberg Edition)
Isaac Newton and the Origin of Civilization tells the tale of one of Newton’s lesser-known works: Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, Amended, which was published in 1728, one year after his death. This large and well-documented work provides a detailed treatment of Newton’s work in this area along with an informative treatment of the methodology of experimental science in Newton’s day.
The principal mathematics consists of the use of spherical trigonometry to locate times and locations of specific events in the heavens. For example, Newton calculated the original times at which the colures (the two great circles which respectively include the poles and equinoxes or the poles and solstices) passed through some point of a constellation. The material appears in the Appendices.
The authors provide insight into the negotiations concerning the relative epistemological status of theology and natural philosophy which were opened by Galileo in his Letter to the Duchess Christina. We also learn of Newton’s role in the development of the statistical treatment of experimental data. Many scientists viewed the fact that repeated measurement of a supposed constant yields multiple results as a sign of weakness and not as an inherent property of measurement. Indeed, standard deviation as a measure of error would be discovered/invented by Francis Galton (1822–1911) only much later. In many cases, scientists would simply choose a single “correct” value. By contrast, Newton used an average value in the cases where he had multiple measures. Buchwald and Feingold inform us that he attempted a similar technique in the case of multiple written accounts of the same event. He tried (without much success!) to construct an algorithm which would allow one to come to a sort of weighted average of several alternate descriptions of the same event.
The authors refer to scientific studies aimed at establishing the exact dates of historical events as chronology. The goal was to match up “pagan” records with the (supposedly) perfect Biblical record. Originally viewed as a lesser discipline (after all, most such information is in the Bible, is it not?), by Newton’s time practitioners of chronology (who were also referred to as synchronizers) were claiming to have equal rights with theologians to make truth claims regarding the dates of Biblical events. Methodologies were hotly debated as was the discipline’s place in the intellectual pecking order. The two sides often talked past one another as witnessed by the claims made for science by Galileo and for biblical innerancy by Beroadle.
Galileo Galilei, in his Letter to the Grand Duchess, argued that
It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature's actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible. (Galileo, Selected Writings. Translated by Shea, W. R. and Davie, M. Oxford World Classics, 2012, page 67)
Mathieu Beroalde (minister and professor of philosophy at Geneva, also known as Matthieu Brouart or Béroalde and (in Latin) as Mattheus Beroaldus) had a different take:
Profane historians are inconsistent among themselves; but the Holy Scripture conforms with itself; therefore one cannot go astray when following it… secular history is full of lies (and that ancient chronology) was an Augean stable of errors.” ( p. 114)
By the early 1600s, astronomers began touting the usefulness of their discipline with respect to chronology. In particular, they argued, reports of eclipses and other astronomical sightings could be used to precisely date an historical event, thus providing a series of certain dates around which to construct a more detailed chronology. Not everyone agreed. Here is John Conduitt, a British Member of Parliament and Master of the Mint (and who married Sir Isaac Newton's niece) speaking on the issue:
But although the Sunne be most sure in his course, there is a Sunne which is more true and steadfast… the Sunne-Light of the truth which shineth in the Scriptures. (p. 116)
Newton began his work in the late 1670s with a “relentless mining of scripture (which) was propelled by a firm conviction that the prophecies, suitably construed, had verisimilitude.” (p. 129) Newton begins by assuming Ussher’s Creation fixed at 4004 BCE. While he purports to be seeking concordance, Buchwald and Feingold report that both Newton and Berolde felt free to reject historical evidence on the grounds that scripture failed to mention it. (p. 115). That aside, he is clearly quite proud of his work:
I have drawn up the following Chronological Table…so as to make Chronology suit with the Course of Nature, with Astronomy, with Sacred History, with Herodotus the Father of History, and with itself; without the many repugnancies complained of by Plutarch. (p. 243)
While the details of his approach will be of interest mainly to those with an interest in the history of astronomy, they provide yet more evidence of the effort Newton was willing to expend on everything he did. The basic idea is to use reported past astronomical sightings and the science of his day to date those sightings. This involves starting with the reported date of a sighting and then computing the exact date based on current knowledge as to what should have seen from a given site. In particular, specific star sightings at the equinoxes were a common data input. Newton would then use the “Course of Nature” (what he knew about motions in the heavens) to establish a date for the given observation and hence a date for the specific era in history. Among many complications are the precession of the equinoxes, an ambiguity as to the specific stars being referred to, and estimates as to the errors which might be present in the reported measurement. While this might seem a challenge to us, Newton saw it as providing the freedom to adjust dates so as to bring them into agreement with the Biblical record.
One other difficulty Newton and other synchronizers faced deserves mention. The Biblical narrative makes it possible to estimate the world’s population at various points in history. Pagan records provide population figures at other points. Using the assumption that population growth is geometric, it’s possible to compute the rate of growth needed to go from a (small) Biblical population to a (larger) recorded population in the presumed number of years available. Unfortunately, that rate of increase produces an unsustainable population in just a few more years. As a result, Newton and other synchronizers are forced to assume that population growth rates changed repeatedly over time — a phenomenon he is unable to explain.
Newton was not the only chronologer. They were a contentious group whose internal bickering eventually led to the demise of chronology, as recounted in Chapter 12. In particular, Newton’s work came under severe criticism from professional historians. As for example this quote from Aphones Des Vignoles in 1738:
It is no less true, and I am not afraid to declare it, that the geometrical genius does no way appear in Sir Isaac’s new Chronology. The principles on which he has founded it, are neither demonstrated, nor incontestable, nor admitted to be true… In one word it, it is an edifice built of stones, ill proportioned, and ill bound together. (p. 411)
While the work it describes may have received a less than glowing reception, Isaac Newton and the Origin of Civilization is well worth reading. It offers a very different insight into Newton’s life and on the interactions between science and religion in his day. As such it is recommended for college and university libraries. I agree with the dust jacket quote from Niccolò Guicciardini: “The authors have something new to say about every facet of Newton’s intellectual endeavor.”
Richard Wilders is Marie and Bernice Gantzert Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at North Central College in Naperville, IL.