Newton and Civilization

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Sir Isaac Newton

The early dating of Egypt is one that is still under review in 2013. The latest research, just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, provides a new timeline for the origin of ancient Egypt. Its first ruler, King Aha, is now believed to have come to power in 3100 BC.

Until now, the chronology of the earliest centuries ancient Egypt has been based on rough estimates based on evolving styles of ceramics. The new study, which uses radiocarbon dating of hair, bones and plants, shortens the timeline of Egypt by 300 to 400 years. Instead of early groups settling along the Nile in 4000BC, this process started between 3700 and 3600 BC. It thus took only about 500 years, not 900 years, for the state of Egypt to come under the rule of one man.

It is a shortening of the timescale of the origin of civilisation that Isaac Newton spent much of his life writing about. In their new book Newton and the Origin of Civilization, authors Jed Buchwald and Mordechai Feingold (both California Institute of Technology professors) begin with just such a chronological recalibration about the ancient Minoan kingdom on the island of Crete. The research quoted there was from 2006, and indicated that the Minoan kingdom did not overlap in time with Egypt’s New Kingdom, as had always been thought.

It has to be said at the outset that this is a large and very complex book. Just consider what Newton wrote about this subject, entirely aside from his tremendous work in laying the very foundation of physics and our idea of gravity. “A heap of manuscripts,” the authors tell us, “totaling well over 500,000 words, bespeak the enormous time and effort he devoted to the new enterprise.”

So just what was the “new enterprise”? It was nothing less than a complete re-writing of history based on mathematical ideas he borrowed from his scientific research.

“Newton’s ‘mean’ – the average – was the weapon with which he slew the inevitable dragons of sensual error,” the authors explain in prose much more lurid than most of the book’s text. “It was a most paradoxical weapon for the times, because it amounted to a method by which error seems to be reduced by committing it repeatedly. We have no contemporary record of the reasoning by which he justified this unusual method, one that most natural philosophers of the period would surely have seen as an illogical method.”

It must be kept in mind that even decades later, the concept of error analysis was unknown. If you measure the same thing 10 times, and get 10 results that differ a little bit, how can you know which is correct? Newton was the first to take the mean of multiple measures and adopt it as the correct figure, but other mathematicians had no such concept.

Many people attempted to create a chronology of human history, based on the faulty data they had to deal with in the 17th century. Indeed, the authors relate, when two people were said to have an irreconcilable conflict, they were compared to chronologers. It was into this bottomless pit of controversy that Newton delved with such force.

What most of these people tried to do was put human history into a cage whose bars were built of divine words- words from the Bible that could not be contradicted. Central to this was the book of Revelations. The authors quote a wit of the time who quite rightly noted that the more Revelations is studied “the less it is understood, as generally finding a man cracked, or making him so.” Could it be that the great Newton was cracked? Based on what is revealed here, along with the other great secret pursuit of life – alchemy – the answer is a sorrowful yes.

The case was put best by a contemporary of Newton, the Frenchman Jean Hardouin, who died in 1729, just two years after Newton. Hardouin was a professor of theology and in a 19-page tract “dismantled stone by stone the Chronology’s foundation.” The Chronology was the short title of Newton’s book entitled Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, which was not published in England until a year after Newton’s death.

Among many other points, Hardouin says Newton relied entirely on the writings of Clement of Alexandria (who lived around the year 200), a source that Hardouin said merely “reported fables.” Newton also based much of his work on the “fact” that Chiron was the first astronomer. Hardouin rightly notes that Chiron was not an astronomer, but a talented purveyor of herbal medicines.

“Newton’s system,” he concluded, “is imaginary and chimerical; it’s a phantom.” How unfortunate, he went on, that “this great man, the first geometer and mathematician of Europe, has in the end built nothing but a frivolous system.”

His assessment has certainly been the judgment of every sensible person since then, and the authors of this book say nothing to disabuse that notion. What they have done is release the genie from the bottle: aside from a few specialist historians, everyone had forgotten that Newton ever wrote such a ridiculous book.

The mere idea that the literary productions of the ancient Greeks and Latins were nothing more than regurgitations of Biblical narratives would strike any modern reader as so preposterous that anyone believing it would be more likely to get a lobotomy than a university professorship. But three centuries ago, it was the near unanimous view of scholars, including Newton! Even Sir Walter Raleigh believed Homer had read over all the books of Moses before writing The Iliad and The Odyssey.

That such lunacy could have gripped the greatest minds for centuries is perhaps the greatest message to take away from the book, which is replete with very detailed calculations and analysis too intricate to consider in this brief review. Suffice it to say that the authors have produced an extraordinary work of scholarship here, and one that will surely force many to look at Newton and his work in a new light.

Newton and the Origin of Civilization (528 pages) is $49.50 from Princeton University Press. Visit their website:

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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