In a talk he gave Wednesday at the Beeneke Library, historian Scott Mandelbrot discussed his recent work documenting Isaac Newton’s lost notebook.
Adnan Bseiso, contributing photographer
When Scott Mandelbrot, Director of History Studies at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, traveled to Bonhams auction house in London in 2021, he had to sneak into the building behind someone because the house was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He wanted to look at a notebook that Bonhams had unofficially attributed to Isaac Newton’s closest Cambridge friend, John Wickens.
The visit sparked a months-long study of the notebook, in which Mandelbrot set out to determine the authenticity of the notebook and make a recommendation to the Cambridge University Library as to whether or not to purchase it.
On November 16, the Beinecke Mandelbrote Library has invited to deliver the 2022 Van Sinderen Lecture to an audience of members of the Yale community and the general public. Mandelbrot’s talk focused on the process he undertook to validate the notebook.
“[We must] Think about the problem of how one tries to avoid becoming a victim of fraud,” Mandelbrot told the audience at the start of the lecture. “If any of you decide that you do not agree with me and believe that I and the institution I advised are guilty of such a mistake, please say so.”
The notebook, written in both English and Latin in the late 1670s, contains evidence that Newton’s views on religion were already deviating from, or at least contemplating, the Christian orthodoxy of the time. It also bears correspondence between Newton and Wickens about Newton’s scientific work. Wickens often finds materials for Newton and helps him with his experiments.
Sidney Hirschman ’22 cherished the opportunity to learn about the extensive process behind authenticating a manuscript such as The Lost Notebook through a Mandelbrote talk.
“If you just showed it to me, I’d say yes, it’s real, because you’re Isaac Newton’s scientist,” Hirschman said. “It’s very interesting to see how you do this investigative work to determine whether or not something could be authentic.”
Mandelbrot explained that the validation of the manuscript is important because it will change the understanding of Newton in the public domain.
Mandelbrot argued that a better understanding of Newton as a person would contribute to a better historical understanding of the scientific practices that yielded the important discoveries of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
“The [Bonhams] The description of the notebook ends with the note that the manuscript is usually attributed to [Wickins] Do not assume substantial differences in the hand [the] Mandelbrot said. So the question is: Is any of this true? That was the question I was setting myself up for when I got into it [related] volumes at the end. “
Answering that question was difficult, said Mandelbrot, due to the fact that little of Wickens’ handwriting was present other than the signature attributed to him in the Book of Acceptance, which experts believe he signed when he applied for a minor fellowship at Trinity College in 1660. As Mark Bonhams referred to To her, the hand of this signature is different from that of the notebook.
During his research, Mandelbrot discovered another manuscript—a letter to Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens—that matched the notebook’s hand. It became his job, then, to find out who wrote this manuscript before he attributed the notebook to the same author.
Happily, I was really happy when I recalled this… in Newton’s letter to [his friend] Haley, says “Yesterday I unexpectedly made a copy of the letter I told you about [Huygens]. Tess is in the hand of Mr. John Wickins who was then my roommate,” said Mandelbrot to the audience. “That tells me that this is Wickins’ hand in an authentic form.”
However, Mandelbrot still admits the possibility that a sophisticated forger may have made the same link between Newton’s letter to Halley and the letter to Huygens, though this seems unlikely. They could then proceed to hand copy the letter to Huygens upon forging Wickins’ notebook.
To eliminate this possibility, Mandelbrot continued searching and stumbled upon an unpublished manuscript by Joseph Beaumont, an academic at Cambridge. The manuscript discussed a rite of passage he had performed at the university which required all resident art professors to undergo a public presentation of theological doctrine through questions and discussion.
Noting that the theological contents of the notebook answered exactly the questions Beaumont asked the academics to discuss, Mandelbrot concluded that some of the text in the notebook was a transcript of a speech Newton gave at Cambridge.
“So the notebook should be what it says it is,” said Mandelbrot. “It must be a lost notebook of Isaac Newton in the hands of his friend John Wakens.”
Hirschmann was surprised by what Newtonians and scientists in general did not know about their subjects.
“You tend to think that scientists on a particular topic, or a particular person, will know everything about it,” Hirschman told the paper. But this is not actually possible. People just piece things together in the best way they can, like everyone else. It makes you remember that scientists are people too.”
Rustam Nureyev 26 also attended the lecture and found the bidding process for manuscripts such as The Lost Notebook to be even more surprising. He noted that he was particularly fascinated by how open the process was and the advantage of wealthy collectors over institutions such as Cambridge.
“Collectors can pay millions of dollars to get a paper written by Newton or any other important historical figure,” Nureyev said. “And they are not legally bound to preserve the historical manuscript… It must be stored and preserved by universities like Cambridge or Yale.”
Indeed, Mandelbrot assured the News that collectors outbidding universities for important work can be problematic. He said the Cambridge University Library was fortunate that the book auction was not popular with wealthy book collectors.
Bonhams lists the final sale price at £62,750Several times under the “conservative estimate” of £250,000, Mandelbrot told the library that he should have been willing to pay for the manuscript before making the bid.
Isaac Newton gifted a copy of his most important work, The Book of Principles, to Yale College in 1717. It is now housed in the 1742 Library at Beneke.