The pyramids of Giza are widely believed to be among the greatest feats of architecture in humanity’s history. Yet questions have always remained about the precise nature of their design. For instance, what if we told you that their measurements could reveal grave details about the future of our planet? It sounds outlandish, but the renowned British scientist Isaac Newton feverishly studied the concept. And he came up with some astonishing results.
You might be surprised to learn that one of science’s greatest ever minds was obsessed with such esoteric notions. But a series of notes auctioned off at the end of 2020 have clearly illustrated this side of Newton. These pages, in essence, exposed his attempts to crack a code he believed to be within the pyramids’ dimensions.
We’re lucky to be able to see these letters today, as they were very nearly obliterated. The Guardian notes that they were set alight at the edges at some time in the 1680s. According to legend, this was down to Newton’s dog Diamond knocking a candle onto them!
The pages were damaged, though they ultimately survived the flames. And it has meant that we’ve been able to learn about Newton’s mystical side. This provides us with a more complex image of the man, which in no way takes away from his scientific contributions and achievements.
Newton suspected that a measurement known as the royal cubit played a central role in designing the pyramids, according to The Guardian. If the mathematician could figure out the cubit’s actual value, then he might also be able to measure the Earth. This would apparently help to prove his theories on gravity. But it gets so much more bizarre than that. Newton actually thought the cubit might also unravel a code within the Bible that predicted a coming apocalypse.
When you think about Isaac Newton, how many of you would associate him with investigations into the occult? After all, this is a man who created the foundations of modern physics and is one of the great thinkers of the Scientific Revolution. Who knew he had this side to him?
Newton’s most extolled publication is Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which translates as Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Originally written by Newton in Latin, the book was published in 1687 and is widely considered to be the most influential work of physics ever put to paper.
With the exception of energy, Biography.com notes that the content of the Principia touches on every vital aspect of physics as we understand it today. The book lays out Newton’s insights into the qualities of motion, gravity and planetary motion. According to the British National Trust, it’s a publication that “helped define the Age of Reason…”
Legend has it that the spark for Newton’s understanding of gravity occurred sometime in the mid-to-late 1660s. And we’d be willing to wager that you’ve heard this story at some point in your life. The legend goes that Newton was once resting at the foot of an apple tree when one of its fruits fell and hit him on the head.
But how accurate is this tale? Well, it’s difficult to say. There doesn’t appear to be any proof that a falling apple actually struck Newton. It does seem plausible, though, that he watched an apple plummet from a tree and wondered why it traveled in a straight line.
Nevertheless, we do know that Newton began studying gravity at around this time. This was a period of extraordinary productivity and insight for the young man – ultimately culminating with the publication of the Principia. In this groundbreaking book, Newton sets out three vital laws that define the phenomenon of motion.
Newton’s first law asserts that an object in a state of uniform motion won’t move until an external force compels it to. According to Julius O. Smith III’s report Physical Audio Signal Processing, Newton’s second principle second tells us that “force equals mass times acceleration.” Meanwhile, the third says that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” These principles taken together then allowed the scientist to formulate his insights about gravity.
Newton’s laws of motion revealed how celestial objects travel in space. These principles also meant that we could calculate the mass of each planet, and they provided an insight into how the Earth goes flat at the North and South Poles. Not only that: the laws even helped to explain how the tides on our planet function!
In addition to his laws of motion, Newton also contributed extensively to the field of optics – proclaiming that white light is actually made up of different colors. These are the seven shades that we can observe in rainbows. This ultimately proved to be a vital discovery, as it laid the groundwork for a host of new revelations across several scientific fields.
So, we now know about Newton’s astonishing contributions to the field of physics. But what if we told you that he was a gifted inventor, too? In fact, a telescope he finished developing in 1668 was the first accomplishment of his career to bring him widespread recognition. And this device actually aided Newton’s efforts to confirm his hypotheses on the nature of color and light.
Newton clearly had a restless mind that was constantly considering new and profound ideas. But this tendency also led him to areas that today we would consider to be decidedly unscientific. Religion, divination and alchemy were all subjects that the renowned mathematician and physicist committed a great deal of thought to.
According to the auctioneer company Sotheby’s, Newton considered his scientific pursuits to be of secondary importance in his life. He instead saw much more value in trying to work within a more ethereal realm. And Newton had a particular interest in the field of alchemy.
What exactly is alchemy, though? Well, according to Live Science, the philosophy argues that contained within every object around us is a kind of universal spirit. It also claims that metals specifically are alive and growing on our planet. People who practiced alchemy, then, could attempt to transform one metal into another. And a common aim of alchemists was to create gold out of lead.
Alchemists insisted that “common” metals such as lead were actually undeveloped forms of “higher” metals like gold. From this perspective, then, all of Earth’s metals were actually the same thing – they were just at various points in their lifecycle. But isn’t this theory at odds with the fundamental principles of modern science?
From the context of our present day, Newton’s fascination with these pseudoscientific areas may seem surprising. But you need to actually take a moment to consider the time that he lived in. Science as we know it was still an emerging field, so older systems for understanding the world such as alchemy were still firmly established in 17th-century Britain.
Do you want to get a glimpse into Newton’s more mystical side? Well, look no further to the collection of notes that were scorched because of his dog! These pages fetched over half a million dollars at a Sotheby’s auction at the end of 2020. This is a lot of money, of course, but the documents are very revealing about one of history’s greatest minds. Specifically, they illustrate how obsessed Newton was with the pyramids.
The pyramids at Giza in Egypt have fascinated people for millennia, and many have been convinced that they hold significant secrets. According to Sotheby’s, Newton himself believed that there was a hidden code within the design of the Great Pyramid specifically. And by cracking this code, the scientist believed that he might be able to predict when the end of the world would occur.
As the scientist’s burnt notes illustrate, Newton’s obsession with the pyramids focused on something called the royal cubit. This was an undetermined unit of measurement that he believed was at the heart of the pyramid’s designs. By studying the dimensions of the structures and their contents, Newton thought, he might be able to figure out the cubit’s numerical value.
Sotheby’s manuscript expert Gabriel Heaton reflected on Newton’s notes in an interview with The Observer in December 2020. He said, “These are really fascinating papers because in them you can see Newton trying to work out the secrets of the pyramids. It’s a wonderful confluence of bringing together Newton and these great objects from classical antiquity which have fascinated people for thousands of years. The papers take you remarkably quickly straight to the heart of a number of the deepest questions Newton was investigating.”
Newton believed that the ancient Egyptians had come up with sophisticated mathematical systems that have since been forgotten. As a result of these formulations, he supposed, these people were able to work out the planet’s circumference. This was important to Newton, because he required this knowledge in order to prove his own theories related to gravity.
Newton turned to a unit of measurement known as the “stade” to help him in his endeavor. This was a unit used by the ancient Greeks Anaximander and Thales when they claimed that the Earth had a circumference of 400,000 stades. Newton assumed that the Greeks calculated the stade based on Egyptian measurements. And the scientist believed he could use it to work out the value of the cubit. This, in turn, would allow him to calculate the Earth’s size.
Heaton elaborated on the physicist’s efforts in his interview with The Observer. He said, “[Newton] was trying to find proof for his theory of gravitation. But in addition, the ancient Egyptians were thought to have held the secrets of alchemy that have since been lost. Today, these seem disparate areas of study – but they didn’t seem that way to Newton in the 17th century.”
It was important for Newton to work out the royal cubit in order to support his gravitational theory. But the expert had other motivations, too. Newton believed that working out the Egyptian cubit’s length might also allow him to uncover other ancient measurements such as the Hebrews’ sacred cubit. And this is where his interest in religion came in.
What were Newton’s personal views on religion, though? Well, he was actually a Christian, but his opinions would have been perceived as heretical during his own time. Newton didn’t subscribe to faith in the Trinity, which is a fundamental aspect of Christianity. This states that there is a singular God made up of three separate individuals known as the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Newton, for his part, didn’t consider the Son to be on a par with the other two.
But Newton was nonetheless fascinated by scripture. And a particular area of interest were the biblical texts focusing on the apocalypse. He believed that objects described in these passages could contain codes which he could use to decipher greater messages. Interestingly, a biblical building known as the Temple of Solomon was especially important to him.
Newton believed that figuring out the measurements and layout of the Temple of Solomon would allow him to properly understand the Bible. Not only that: he might also be able to work out a timeframe for our world’s end. In Newton’s mind, it seems, the boundaries between religion and his own scientific work wasn’t clear cut.
Newton’s thoughts on religion and alchemy weren’t particularly well-known during his own lifetime. According to Sotheby’s, the physicist tried to keep them hidden for fear of tainting his reputation within the scientific community. But he did leave behind certain notes on these subjects, which he may well have hoped would find devotees in the future.
Amazingly, we would have to wait until 1936 before Newton’s passion for pseudoscientific research came to light. This was the year that some of his writings dedicated to alchemy were sold to the public. Specifically, the Earl of Portsmouth put them up for auction at the aforementioned Sotheby’s.
Who ended up getting their hands on these fascinating papers, then? Well, the influential economist John Maynard Keynes purchased a number of them. And this isn’t hugely surprising given how much he admired Newton’s mystical side. According to Sotheby’s, the former once stated, “Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason, he was the last of the magicians.”
Newton’s thinking was clearly concerned with a range of subjects, but in his own head they wouldn’t have seemed unconnected. Heaton told The Observer, “The idea of science being an alternative to religion is a modern set of thoughts. Newton would not have believed that his scientific work could undermine religious belief. He was not trying to disprove Christianity. This is a man who spent a long time trying to establish the likely time period for the biblical apocalypse. That’s why he was so interested in the pyramids.”
Naturally, the huge price tag for Newton’s scorched notes suggests that people are clearly interested in this side of the man. But that doesn’t surprise Heaton. He said, “There is a huge amount of interest in scientific books and manuscripts – it’s the biggest growth area I’ve seen in the past ten or 15 years. We have complex attitudes towards many historical figures, but the great heroes of science still stand as tall as they ever did.”
So, we now know plenty about Newton’s interests and achievements. But what was he like as a person? Well, Heaton argued that the physicist was a “prickly individual [and] always up for a feud.” Though University of Cambridge science historian Patricia Fara went even further! She told the newspaper, “[Newton] liked to think of himself as the new messiah, come to save the world.”
Regardless of Newton’s difficult personality and maverick beliefs, his contribution to modern science is unquestionable. Also, even his wilder theories were meticulously researched and considered. Heaton explained, “To everything he studied, everything he touched – religion, physics, mathematics, alchemy, chemistry – he brought incredible depth and complexity and originality.”
Of course, many of Newton’s ideas have been disproven or shown to be inadequate since his own lifetime. Albert Einstein, for example, provided us with a far more vivid understanding of the universe than Newton ever did. Yet that is very much the nature of how science works.
Newton, it seems, would have accepted his ideas becoming outdated. Biography.com notes that he once said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world. But to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”