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Notebook of Sir Isaac Newton writing thought lost for 350 years is added to the Cambridge University Library collection



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A manuscript notebook illuminating Sir Isaac Newton’s complex and unorthodox relationship with Christianity that was thought to be lost for almost 350 years has been added to the collection at Cambridge University Library.

The notebook belonged to Newton’s long-time friend and collaborator, John Wickins. He kept it while Newton’s roommate at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The notebook of Sir Isaac Newton writings, kept by assistant John Wilkins, which is now in the collection at Cambridge University Library. Picture: University of Cambridge
The notebook of Sir Isaac Newton writings, kept by assistant John Wilkins, which is now in the collection at Cambridge University Library. Picture: University of Cambridge

Wickins was an assistant to Newton and wrote out the text within the notebook.

It features 12,000 words in English and 5,000 in Latin and is the longest collection of Newtonian writing to be discovered in the last half a century.

Newton is regarded as one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time and famously formed the three laws of motion, and the law of gravitation.

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

In his adult years, it is known that he dismantled the standard biblical proofs for the doctrine of the Trinity, but kept his beliefs to himself. He refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, which was unusual for a member of the Cambridge faculty at the time.

After his death in 1727, his views became public and they have attracted study and speculation ever since.

The Latin text in the notebook records a university ‘disputation’, in which Newton discussed the compatibility of God’s perfect foreknowledge with human free will.

It also features transcribed letters from Newton, which reveal that during the 1670s Wickins worked with Newton on improving his reflecting telescope. The original letters were lost by 1728.

The notebook of Sir Isaac Newton writings, kept by assistant John Wilkins, which is now in the collection at Cambridge University Library. Picture: University of Cambridge
The notebook of Sir Isaac Newton writings, kept by assistant John Wilkins, which is now in the collection at Cambridge University Library. Picture: University of Cambridge

The notebook was purchased at auction with funding from the Friends of the National Libraries, Friends of Cambridge University Library and other donors.

Cambridge University Library holds the world’s largest and most important collection of the scientific works of Newton, many of which can be read digitally at https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/newton/1.

Dr Jill Whitelock, head of special collections at the library, said: “The notebook of John Wickins is a fine complement to these papers and adds significantly to our understanding of Newton and his writings, as well as casting new light on other manuscripts in the University Library.”

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