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Sunday, July 08, 2007

History of science and popular culture: Isaac Newton and the end of the world

An exhibition at Jerusalem's Hebrew University of a 1704 letter written by Isaac Newton shows that he believed, based on his reading of the Book of Daniel in the Bible, that the world would end in 2060.
His famously analytical mind worked out the laws of gravity and unravelled the motion of the planets. And when it came to predicting the end of the world, Sir Isaac Newton was just as precise.

He believed the Apocalypse would come in 2060 – exactly 1,260 years after the foundation of the Holy Roman Empire, according to a recently published letter.

Thus, Newton, long regarded as an icon of materialist science, would be right at home with today's fundamentalists, who pushed the Left Behind series into bestseller status.

Except for one thing: Newton apparently didn't feel the need to heed Jesus' warning , following his own apocalyptic predictions,
"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. NIV

Newton writes as though he thinks that such strictures apply mainly to others:
"This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

Curator Yemima Ben-Menahem, comments diplomatically, "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervour, by a desire to see God's actions in the world."

Here are some thoughtful reflections on Newton's actual views vs. his public persona by Stephen D. Snobelan:
Why did Newton's prediction for 2060 become such a big news story?

One reason why Newton's heresy, apocalyptic thought and prediction about the 2060 date became news in February 2003 is because most members of the media and the public had no idea that Newton was anything other than a "scientist". For many, the revelation that Newton was a passionate believer who took biblical prophecy seriously came as something of a shock. It seems that both the media and the general public have a notion of Newton as a "rational" scientist that makes it difficult to absorb the knowledge that Newton was practising both alchemy and prophetic exegesis—studies many see as antithetical to the enterprise of science. The media has perpetuated a myth that science and religion are inherently in conflict (the fact is, sometimes they are; but religion has also often stimulated the development of science). The story about Newton predicting the Apocalypse in 2060 is the sort of thing that one would expect to see on the covers of the tabloids. In this case, however, the story is true. Ironically, the tabloids did not cover the story (perhaps because this story, although counter-intuitive to many people, is authentic).

In other words, the public perceptions are based on scientism, not reality.

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