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was newton an astrologer?

From time to time I've heard it suggested that Isaac Newton was an astrologer (most recently in the comments section here), usually by way of implying that, if Newton thought astrology was OK, then it must be. Now, Newton is viewed as being one of those thinkers responsible for sparking the Age of Enlightenment and a significant contributor to the 'Scientific Revolution', so it seems a bit unlikely that he'd be deeply into the rather unscientiific tenets of astrology - but not impossible. As the late Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out, it's rather unfair to view thinkers who lived hundreds of years ago through lenses focused on today. So I looked a bit more deeply.

Fortunately it's fairly easy to check these claims out. For example, Cambridge University holds a very large collection of Newton's papers, available in digitisal format. The astronomical section, which might reasonably be expected to contain notes or commentary on matters astrological, doesn't appear to do so; nor does the section of 'notes' & copies of letters on general astronomical topics. (I hadn't realised Newton was into the chronology of 'ancient kingoms': Greeks, Medes & Persians, & so on.) Cosmography and astronomy =/= astrology.

In addition, Robert van Gent has looked into the issue rather carefully. He notes that

One of the foremost Newton scholars, the English historian of science Derek Thomas Whiteside, has stated that he never found any reference to astrology among the 50 million words which have been preserved from Newton's hand.

Newton had a sizeable library of at least 1752 books - but surprisingly, while we rightly remember him for his major contributions to mathematics, physics, and astronomy, van Gent found that there were just

126 (7.2%) on mathematics, 52 (3.0%) on physics and only 33 (1.9%) on astronomy.

There were also just four books about astrology, one of which was a rebuttal of its claims. It's also noteworthy that Newton himself apparently commented to his nephew, who was gathering material for a biography, that he

was "soon convinced of the vanity & emptiness of the pretended science of Judicial astrology" 

after his early studies in geometry and calculus.

Was Newton an astrologer? No.

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3 Comments

Next thing you know, they'll be claiming he played the Lotto!
~

Easy to claim all sorts of things once someone's dead, isn't it? The fib about Darwin's 'deathbed recantation' springs to mind; also the anti-fluoride activists' claim that 14 Nobel prizewinners opposed fluoride, therefore bad. When you look into it, most on the list of 14 are dead & 14 is a very small sample of the total (& we could assume that the rest were either in favour or offered no opinion).

He was keen on alchemy, which is NEAR ENOUGH.

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