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We know it intimately

Christina Riggs: Rummaging for Mummies, 22 October 2020

A World beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology 
by Toby Wilkinson.
Picador, 510 pp., £25, October, 978 1 5098 5870 5
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... inch was 1/25th of a ‘sacred cubit’, a supposed ancient unit of measurement invented by Isaac Newton). Smyth’s pyramid inch fell short, but Petrie liked the life that fieldwork offered. He played up to its hardships through his long career, to the torment of younger men who trained with him: Howard Carter had to build his own brick living ...

Dispersed and Distracted

Jonathan Rée: Leibniz, 25 June 2009

Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography 
by Maria Rosa Antognazza.
Cambridge, 623 pp., £25, November 2008, 978 0 521 80619 0
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... motion’ (mv); and afterwards he constructed a telling critique of the absolutist metaphysics of Isaac Newton, arguing that space and time had no reality of their own, but could be resolved into inherent properties of the objects that are said to occupy them. Newton took offence at these comments, and became incensed ...

Not Dead Yet

Anthony Grafton: Latin, 8 January 2015

Latin: Story of a World Language 
by Jürgen Leonhardt, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg.
Harvard, 352 pp., £22.95, November 2013, 978 0 674 05807 1
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... as Halley had predicted.’ Four days later, attending a meeting of the Royal Society, Logan heard Isaac Newton ask Halley to discuss the eclipse. Logan, who thought that Halley seemed quite happy to ‘conceal his error’ by invoking the cloud cover, was sure that Whiston’s work was superior, and that totality had not been reached while he was in ...

Strong Government

Linda Colley, 7 December 1989

The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1788 
by John Brewer.
Unwin Hyman, 289 pp., £28, April 1989, 0 04 445292 6
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Cambridge in the Age of the Enlightenment: Science, Religion and Politics from the Restoration to the French Revolution 
by John Gascoigne.
Cambridge, 358 pp., £32.50, June 1989, 0 521 35139 1
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Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 
by C.A. Bayly.
Longman, 295 pp., £16.95, June 1989, 0 582 04287 9
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... this claim. No academic institution should be dismissed that gave rise, as Cambridge did, to Sir Isaac Newton. But Newton’s legacy proved an ambiguous one. It encouraged in Cambridge an obsessive concentration on mathematics which, together with its exclusion of Dissenters, increasingly divorced the university from ...

Think like a neutron

Steven Shapin: Fermi’s Paradoxes, 24 May 2018

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age 
by David N. Schwartz.
Basic, 448 pp., £26.99, December 2017, 978 0 465 07292 7
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... predictably, Alfred Hitchcock) and those whose knowledge ‘changed everything’ (Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell). Everything-knowers are admired, though with qualifications: the ‘know-it-all’ is an intellectual bully or a bore, and one thing it’s useful to know is when not to tell everyone that you know everything. It’s no ...

Philosophical Vinegar, Marvellous Salt

Malcolm Gaskill: Alchemical Pursuits, 15 July 2021

The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy, 1300-1700 
by Jennifer M. Rampling.
Chicago, 408 pp., £28, December 2020, 978 0 226 71070 9
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... At​ 1 p.m. on 13 July 1936, bidding opened at Sotheby’s on a trunk of Isaac Newton’s notebooks and papers. They had been in the family of the earl of Portsmouth for many years: a previous earl had lent them to the University of Cambridge, where scholars judged them of little scientific importance. Partly because of this indifference, the auction was overshadowed by a sale of Impressionist art at Christie’s, and almost escaped the attention of John Maynard Keynes, a Newton enthusiast ...

Cute, My Arse

Seamus Perry: Geoffrey Hill, 12 September 2019

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin 
by Geoffrey Hill.
Oxford, 148 pp., £20, April 2019, 978 0 19 882952 2
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... defeat or neglect. The artistic figures he reveres are mostly the fallen – Swift, Blake, Clare, Isaac Rosenberg, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, Robert Desnos, Charles Péguy, Paul Celan, as well as people who are defined by their outsiderness, such as the young Berkeley and the mathematician Alan Turing – whose integrity is interwoven with their ruin. The ...

Our Slaves Are Black

Nicholas Guyatt: Theories of Slavery, 4 October 2007

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World 
by David Brion Davis.
Oxford, 440 pp., £17.99, May 2006, 0 19 514073 7
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The Trader, the Owner, the Slave 
by James Walvin.
Cape, 297 pp., £17.99, March 2007, 978 0 224 06144 5
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The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 
by Colin Kidd.
Cambridge, 309 pp., £16.99, September 2006, 0 521 79324 6
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The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview 
by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese.
Cambridge, 828 pp., £18.99, December 2005, 0 521 85065 7
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... biographical sketches of three participants in Britain’s 18th-century slave economy. John Newton (1725-1807) was a slave captain who became an Anglican cleric and, towards the end of his life, an opponent of the trade. Thomas Thistlewood (1721-86) was an overseer and eventually a slaveholder in western Jamaica who compiled a meticulous diary of his ...

Enlightenment Erotica

David Nokes, 4 August 1988

Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America 
by Peter Wagner.
Secker, 498 pp., £30, March 1988, 0 436 56051 8
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’Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment 
edited by Robert Purks Maccubin.
Cambridge, 260 pp., £25, March 1988, 0 521 34539 1
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The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature 
edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown.
Methuen, 320 pp., £28, February 1988, 0 416 01631 6
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... is no evidence of genital activity) but they were homosocial and homoerotic by any definition.’ Newton is enlisted into the gay fraternity, partly on the fictional evidence of John Barth’s Sot Weed Factor; Gray is ‘clearly homosexual’; Akenside is ‘exclusively homosexual’; and Handel is declared ‘more homosocial than the norm for the age’. As ...

Warp Speed

Frank Close: Gravitational Waves, 7 February 2008

Travelling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves 
by Daniel Kennefick.
Princeton, 319 pp., £19.95, May 2007, 978 0 691 11727 0
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... sail with the tide, or people gather to witness a total eclipse of the Sun, they are trusting in Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. For more than three hundred years his theory has proved so accurate in describing the universe that it has enabled us not only to predict tides and eclipses, but even to send spaceships to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. One ...

Get a Real Degree

Elif Batuman, 23 September 2010

The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing 
by Mark McGurl.
Harvard, 480 pp., £25.95, April 2009, 978 0 674 03319 1
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... my not skyrocketing off the face of the earth right now constitutes a sign of my submission to Isaac Newton. And, when Kesey describes McMurphy as an ‘almost two-dimensional’, Shane-like character, who ‘gains dimension from being viewed through the lens of Chief Bromden’s Indian consciousness’, I don’t think he is staging ‘an imaginary ...
Mason & Dixon 
by Thomas Pynchon.
Cape, 773 pp., £16.99, May 1997, 9780224050012
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... to America. I kept hoping, ev’ry Birthday, this would be the year.’ The boy’s name is Doctor Isaac, after Newton. ‘The Fish jump into your Arms,’ he continues a little later. ‘The Indians know Magick.’ ‘We’ll go there. We’ll live there,’ butts in his younger brother. ‘We’ll fish there,’ Doc ...

Thank you for your letter

Anthony Grafton: Latin, 1 November 2001

Latin, or the Empire of a Sign: From the 16th to the 20th Centuries 
by Françoise Waquet, translated by John Howe.
Verso, 346 pp., £20, July 2001, 1 85984 615 7
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... to write in Latin. Some of the most radical prophets of modernity – Descartes, Grotius and Newton – felt that they could address the deepest questions about nature and nature’s laws, Scripture and tradition, more proficiently in Latin than in their native languages. Into the 18th century, diplomats continued to study Latin, and often used it in ...

He had fun

Anthony Grafton: Athanasius Kircher, 7 November 2013

Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity 
by Daniel Stolzenberg.
Chicago, 307 pp., £35, April 2013, 978 0 226 92414 4
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Exploring the Kingdom of Saturn: Kircher’s Latium and Its Legacy 
by Harry Evans.
Michigan, 236 pp., £63.50, July 2012, 978 0 472 11815 1
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... Greek, not Egyptian, and in the Christian era, not under the ancient dynasties of the pharaohs, as Isaac Casaubon, the Huguenot Hellenist, had demonstrated with depressing finality much earlier, in 1614. Kircher was oblivious: he never realised that genuine obelisks had stood at royal tombs, or that their inscriptions commemorated rulers. Instead, he read the ...

Such Matters as the Soul

Dmitri Levitin: ‘The Invention of Science’, 22 September 2016

The Invention of Science: a New History of the Scientific Revolution 
by David Wootton.
Penguin, 784 pp., £12.99, September 2016, 978 0 14 104083 7
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... for empirical, non-bookish knowledge, which culminated in the findings of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, all of whom worked outside the official world of learning (the institutions, meanwhile, remained tragically wedded to the old authorities). This Scientific Revolution slowly but surely ushered in an age of rationalism, sweeping away the superstition of ...

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