Genius, mathematician, scientist in Opticks, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) summed up a lifetimes experiments on light, prisms, and color. In his long and honor-filled life, he was a Cambridge professor, Englands Warden of the Mint, and eventual president of the Royal Society. A firm believer in reason and the ability of human beings to understand how the universe worked (the inward frame of bodies is not yet known to us, he writes in one place, with apparent confidence that eventually it would be), he also devoted considerable mental effort to the riddles of alchemy. The French philosophe Voltaire attended Newtons funeral in 1727, later writing that in a country where mortals are canonized, his discoveries might very well pass for miracles.
Newtons earliest optical paper, published in 1672, was the result of his experiments to solve the problem of chromatic aberration in telescopes that is, aberration caused by differences in refraction of the colored rays of the spectrum. Having ground his own lenses for nearly ten years, Newton concluded that white light contained all colors and that different colors refracted to different degrees. His subsequent invention of the reflecting telescope is described in Opticks in Book I. Two additional essays in this 1704 edition are excursions into higher mathematics.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
9 7/8 x 8 inches (251 x 203 mm)
As Thomas Kuhn has pointed out in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
the mythologizing tendency in “normal” science is to represent its own
history as a linear journey down the highway of progress without detours
into roadside rest areas, let alone wrong exits. The publishing history of
Opticks suggests a different story. By Newtons own admission, most of
the research described in the book had been completed long before the first
edition reproduced here. Indeed, anecdotes from Newtons Cambridge days
include the story than an earlier draft of this work was destroyed in 1692
by a fire in his room, caused by a candle left burning while the scientist
went to supper.
The 1704 edition of Opticks includes two mathematical treatises in Latin,
the “Tractatus de Quadratura Curvarum” and the “Enumeratio Linearum Tertii
Ordinis” (the main text is in English). Why did Newton choose to write and
publish them in Latin? Although one important result of the Reformation was
to undo the compulsory relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and
Europes universities, Latin continued to be used by scientists and
speculative philosophers across the continent; hence it was part of the
standard curriculum for anyone considering higher education. It was only
natural that Newton learned Latin before going to college, and though never
a florid stylist, he shows a command of the language which never leads the
reader astray. Newtons concepts are often complex, but the Latin in which
he couches them is no more difficult than Livys (and considerably easier
reading than, say, Sallust or Suetonius).
In addition to his foundational work in the accepted sciences, Isaac Newton
devoted a considerable portion of his labors to alchemy and alchemical
experimentation. These efforts have gained increased attention in recent
years through the works of scholars such as Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs and
William Newman, who have demonstrated both the extent of Newtons
involvement in esoteric matters and the influence of Hermetic theories on
Newtons work in the conventional sciences (for instance, his Three Laws of
Motion have been correlated to the principles embodied in the alchemical
elements Salt, Sulphur, and Mercury). Viewing Newtons works in their first
editions facilitates deeper investigation of the complexly interrelated
scientific and philosophical cultures in which they were created.