12 31 simon formanI have an astrological physician for you today. Simon Forman was born near Salisbury in Wiltshire on this day in 1552. Simon Forman was the son of a farmer, he was not rich and didn’t make any world changing discoveries. So how come we know anything about him at all? It’s because his life is extremely well documented. By Simon Forman. He wrote an autobiography. He kept diaries and also, as an astrologer, he made extensive notes about his consultations. There are a lot of them. 10,000 between the years 1596 and 1602. In each he records the name and age of the client, the question asked and the exact time. From this he constructed an astrological chart that told him what the answer was. So his case notes give quite intimate personal details of Londoners from all walks of life. As around 90% of the questions are about health and disease, they are a rich and rare source of medical records for the period. His astrological nonsense didn’t go down too well with the Company of Barber Surgeons. Yes, I know they sound a bit disreputable too, but they’re still around today, only they’re called the Royal College of Surgeons now. So he was in trouble with them and in trouble for other things too. Perhaps for his occult studies and possessing books about magic. Perhaps for his numerous sexual dalliances with his patients. He actually spent quite a lot of time in prison. Despite his troubles his good reputation began to spread after he survived a nasty dose of plague and claimed to have cured himself.

He wrote extensively about astrology, alchemy, gardening and the history of giants. They’re all descendants of Noah, in case you’re wondering. Also, as we mentioned, he also wrote about himself. We know that his father loved him but his mother did not. We know that he had wild dreams as a child about mountains falling on him, but that he always managed to clamber over. He saw these dreams as prophetic of his difficult life to come. He tells us that when he was at school he used to visit a canon of the church called Mr. Mintorne. The canon rarely kept a fire in the house but he did keep faggots, which in this case means a bundle of dried sticks used to light a fire. When he was cold he would carry them up to the attic until he was warm. When they were all upstairs he carried them down again. He made Simon do the same, because he thought it was better to heat yourself than sit by a fire.

Thanks to his diaries, we know about the time he almost chopped his finger off because he had hung his sword from the bedpost. We know exactly how many times he fell downstairs and on what date. We also know about the time he dreamed about the Queen, Elizabeth I. The Queen was out in the street wearing just a petticoat. Forman rescued her from a weaver with a red beard who was over familiar and kissed her. As he was leading her away, her petticoat dragged in the mud and he suggested to her that he could make her pregnant, then her belly would be bigger and her petticoats would be higher and not get muddy. He was pretty sure it went well. Dreams are weird things and it’s lovely to have one from so long ago recorded.

Forman is also credited with having written the only eyewitness account of the plays of William Shakespeare that date from the life of the playwright. He went to see Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre and also Cymbeline. He wrote short impressions of them, which oddly include a description of Macbeth and Banquo riding in the opening scene.

Although he seems, at best, misguided and, at worst, a charlatan, he did manage to predict his own death. One Sunday afternoon, he announced to his wife that he would die the following Thursday. On Monday, everything was fine. On Tuesday, he was not sick. On Wednesday he was still well. By Thursday his wife was teasing him about it. Then after dinner, he took a boat out on the Thames to go and look at some buildings he had an investment in. In the middle of the river he collapsed and died.

Water, Water Everywhere

12 30 jan baptist van helmontToday I want to tell you about Jan Baptist van Helmont, a chemist, alchemist, physiologist and physician who was born in Brussels in 1580 and died on this day in 1644. He studied the classics and was taught magic and mystical philosophy by the Jesuits before settling on a study of medicine. He practised medicine until he married money, then he devoted himself to a study of chemical philosophy. Van Helmont was both a man of science and a man of God and I’m always rather impressed by people who manage to make advances in scientific knowledge despite their belief in a divine creation.

Van Helmont refuted the idea that there were four elements: earth, air, fire and water. He believed that there were only two. Fire, he said, was definitely not and element and neither was earth as he felt it could be reduced to water. In his universe, there was air and everything else was made of water in some form. His theory was, he thought, supported by the creation story found in the book of Genesis. He carried out an experiment which would prove that a tree is made of water. People generally believed that a tree grew by eating soil, which is a delightfully quaint idea. Van Helmont got himself a small tree and weighed it. It weighed 5 lb. Then he weighed out 200lb of dry soil, put it in a pot, planted the tree and watered it. He kept the tree and continued to water it for five years. At the end of that time, he took the tree out of the soil and weighed it again. It weighed 169 lb. When he dried out the soil and weighed that, he found that it was only 2oz lighter than when he started. The tree had eaten hardly any of the soil. As he had given it only water, the tree must be made of water. Of course, he didn’t understand anything about photosynthesis and didn’t know that the tree had also taken carbon from the air. But then he thought air was an element and wasn’t made of anything except itself.

This is odd as he did know about gas. In fact he invented the word. Gas was, of course, another form of water which was liberated by heating. In another experiment, he burned 62 lb of charcoal and found he was left with only 1 lb of ash. The rest had escaped during the burning in the form of some kind of wild spirit he called ‘gas sylvestre’ but what we would call carbon dioxide. No one is sure where he got the word ‘gas’ from. It may be derived from the Greek word ‘chaos’ or from the word ‘gahst’ which means ghost or spirit. He believed the same gas sylvestre was produced by fermenting alcohol and that it was what rendered the air in some caves unbreathable.

Among his other discoveries was the fact that chemicals were involved in the digestion of food. People had thought that digestion was caused by heat, but van Helmont realised if that were true, cold blooded animals like snakes would not be able to digest their meals. Unfortunately he thought that the fluids involved in digestion were governed by spirits that needed to be kept in balance, but that’s alchemists for you. But it did lead him to successfully treat stomach complaints caused by and excess of acid with an alkaline remedy.

Not much of the work of van Helmont was published during his lifetime. Early on he waded into a massive controversy that landed him in trouble with the Inquisition and that probably put him off. There was quite a heated debate going on between the Jesuits and followers of a physician called Paraclesus, of whom van Helmont was one. It was over a cure known as the ‘weapon salve’. A wound could be cured by applying a special ointment to the weapon that had caused the injury. If you read the ingredients, there’s no way you would want to put it on an actual wound. It requires ‘man’s grease’ and some moss which has grown on the skull of a person who has met a violent death. Surprisingly, the debate was not about whether it worked at all, but why it worked. The Jesuits felt that it was all the devil’s work and should be left well alone. Van Helmont believed that it worked because there was a magnetic attraction between the blood on the weapon and the blood coursing through the veins of the patient. This kind of sympathetic magic was very real to people in seventeenth century Europe. He further went on to explain that it probably worked in the same way that sacred relics produced miracles. This was a mistake. He was suspected of heresy and it earned him two years of house arrest. He was not fully absolved until after his death. A lot of his work was published posthumously by his son who, by our standards, was even more odd and esoteric that his father. Which is probably why not many people have heard of him.


12 29 emma snodgrassWhat with reality television, docusoaps and twitter we’re all familiar with the way people rise to prominence in the media for a time only to disappear into obscurity a few months later. Stories come and go so quickly it seems as though Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes might be true. But this is not a purely modern phenomenon. From late 1852 until the summer of the following year, people all over the United States were terribly interested in the antics of a seventeen-year-old girl called Emma Snodgrass. People were very shocked by her behaviour. The thing she did that upset everyone so much was to dress in man’s clothes. She was arrested for wearing pants. It’s hard to understand now why this should have been such a problem but it really was.

Emma was from New York where her father was a respected city official. On December 29th 1852, she was arrested in Boston for the crime of wearing pants. This was not the first time this had happened, nor was it the last. Some time in November, calling herself George Green, she had got a job as a clerk in a clothing store. When her cover was blown, she was arrested, given more appropriate attire and packed off back to her father in New York in the company of her brother. It was an unusual story which soon made it into the local paper. A few weeks later, she was back again. She took lodgings in a coffee house. She left her lodgings in women’s clothes but returned wearing a frock coat, cap, vest and pants. Her landlord recognised her and informed the police. She was again returned to her father. No one was able to understand why she persisted in wearing men’s clothing and one begins to wonder whether anyone ever asked her.

Several stories concerning her behaviour appeared in December. She was once again, caught wearing pants. She attracted the attention of romantic young men. She visited Portsmouth. N.H. Where she caused a ‘profound sensation’. Then on December 29th she was arrested again. This time she was in the company of another, similarly disguised young woman called Harriet French. According to the newspaper report “it was with great difficulty that the friends could be separated”. Eventually Emma was returned yet again to New York in the company of a police officer whilst Harriet was given a day’s grace to leave town or else face two months imprisonment at Blackwell’s Island. While Emma came from a well-off family, Harriet did not. That, said one newspaper, “is the difference between breeches without money, and breeches with”.

Apart from the trousers thing, no one seems to have adequately put their finger on what the problem with her was. On one hand she appeared in court charged with vagrancy but, as she had always paid her way, never begged or misbehaved herself she was released. Yet, another report says that she frequented drinking houses “made several violent attempts to talk ‘horse,’ and do other things for which ‘fast’ boys are noted.” What it means to talk horse, who the fast boys were and what else they got up to, I have been unable to find out. In the spring of the following year she was spotted in Albany calling herself Henry Lewis. She said she was on her way to California or Australia. Over the following months, she was reported in Louisville, in Buffalo, in Cleveland. Then in July a story appeared claiming that she had given up all her nonsense and gone home. Maybe she did, maybe she made it to Australia or maybe she just got really good at disguising her self.

Although no one seems to have found out  why Emma chose to dress as a man, a few years later another young woman, called Charley, was arrested in New York whilst wearing men’s clothes. She claimed to have been with Emma Snodgrass in Boston, but had not been found out. Charley was asked about her own choice. She said that it was just easier, she could get better work for more money as a man. She had worked for a long time as a cabin boy on a Mississippi steamboat and then as a bar tender in the city. She had started to dress as a boy at fifteen, she said: “I acted wrong once, I don’t deny it; but I didn’t like to, and it was to prevent the necessity of continuing to act bad that I put on boy’s clothes.”

Not Alone

12 28 peder winstrupToday I want to tell you about Peder Winstrup, bishop of Lund. Peder was born in 1605 in Copenhagen. He was made bishop of Lund in 1638 and was clearly something of a diplomat, as he managed to hang on to his position when Lund moved from Danish to Swedish control in 1658. He was very interested in science, he made studies of animal behaviour and tried to find out if it was true that the cuckoo puts its young in another bird’s nest. Education was important to him and he was instrumental in the founding of the University of Lund which happened in 1666. He died on this day in 1679 and was laid to rest in the cathedral in Lund.

It isn’t really his life I want to tell you about though. In 1833 his burial vault was partially demolished and his body was found to be remarkably well preserved. Well enough for him to be easily recognised from his portraits. His coffin was opened again in 1923 and photographs were taken. Then, in 2012 the cathedral staff decided to move his coffin and by coincidence, at the same time, the archivist at Lund University’s museum was examining a glass plate from the 1923 opening. It was soon realised that the bishop was probably the best preserved 17th century body to be found in any of the Nordic countries. Here was an excellent opportunity to make a scientific study, using modern methods, to find out about life in seventeenth century Sweden and how it was that his body had been so well preserved. It was a time capsule from the year 1679.

His body has been accidentally preserved rather that deliberately mummified and all his internal organs are intact. There are several reasons why his body has dried out naturally. He had been laid on a mattress stuffed with wormwood, juniper berries, lavender and hyssop. His head rests on a pillow filled with hops. The herbs have probably played a role in preserving his body and so have the cold, draughty and dry conditions in the crypt. The fact that he was died and buried in the winter have also helped. Bishop Winstrup’s body was very emaciated at the time of death, suggesting a long illness. So the lack of body fat has also helped prevent decay.

Among the things that have been found out about the bishop are that he probably died of pneumonia, but also suffered from arthritis, gout and a shoulder injury. Missing and rotted teeth indicate a high amount of sugar in his diet, while the presence of gall stones suggest a high consumption of fat. So he lived well.

When the body of Peder Winstrup was put into a CT scanner, in order to build up a three-dimensional picture, a surprising discovery was made. The bishop has not been alone in his coffin. For close to 350 years he has had a companion. Tucked amongst the herbs beneath his feet is the body of a five or six month old foetus. Clearly it has been deliberately hidden there and no one would have known about it except whoever concealed it. Probably it was placed there by a member of the bishop’s staff and it is unlikely that the bishop and the baby are in any way related, but DNA tests may tell us in time. Probably that person was looking for a proper resting place for the child. A stillborn infant or one who died before baptism was not permitted a Christian burial and bereaved parents often resorted to desperate measures. They may have had to hang on to the body for months waiting for the right opportunity to bribe someone to place it in another coffin or to bury it in the church wall. Who better to look after the child than a bishop?

I am not in the habit of filling this blog with pictures of dead bodies, it seems disrespectful, but, as his body is so remarkably well preserved, if you want to see a short video, there is one here. The bishop’s body has now been re-interred. I couldn’t find out for sure whether he still has his companion, but I hope he has.

Woman of the Apocalypse

12 27 joanna southcottToday I want to tell you about Joanna Southcott. She was born in Devon some time in April of 1750. The official date of her death is December 27th 1814. Joanna was, during her lifetime, a prophetess with thousands of followers. Some continued to believe the things she foretold long after her death. Perhaps some still do.

In 1790 she was working in a draper’s shop in Exeter. Her employer was a Methodist and she spent a lot of time talking with the Methodist ministers who frequented the shop. They were impressed by her intelligence and she came to have a rather inflated sense of her own importance. Then one morning, whilst sweeping out the shop, she found on the floor, a seal with her own initials on it. She felt it was a sign from God. In fact, she came to believe that she was the woman spoken of in the Book of Revelation, who would give birth to the second Messiah. The Woman of the Apocalypse. The Book of Revelation comes right at the end of the New Testament. It describes what will happen at the end of days and is every bit as mad as Joanna was. Here is what it has to say about the Woman of the Apocalypse:

12 27n woman of the apocalypse1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

She thought this gave her the authority to sell documents which were basically passports to heaven. The pieces of paper could be bought for anywhere between twelve shillings and a guinea and were folded and sealed. Anyone in possession of one would be one of the 144,000 spoken of in the Book of Revelation who would be saved. They would also reign on earth alongside Christ for a thousand years. Those without a seal would spend a thousand years in hell. The seals were bought as quickly as she could produce them and those who bought the seals were forbidden to open them. The less credulous people who opened the seals to find out what was inside, often found only a blank piece of paper. Her trade in seals rather tailed off though when one of her ‘elect’ was hanged at York for murder.

Things took an unusual turn when, at the age of sixty-four, Joanna announced that she was pregnant. Her thousands of followers became very excited and clubbed together to purchase an expensive cradle for the new Messiah. The announcement also brought all sorts of gifts for the miraculous baby from her chosen followers. Midwives fought for the privilege of being responsible for the delivery. The birth, Joanna predicted, would take place at midnight on October 19th 1814. The appointed hour came and went and no child appeared. The failure was accounted for by a lack of faith among her followers. Though some claimed that a child had been born and had ascended straight to heaven. Eventually, it became clear that Joanna was quite ill. She died, probably on December 27th 1814. This is not certain, as her followers kept her body for quite a long time after she died, believing that she would rise again. A post-mortem revealed that she had suffered from a condition called dropsy which had caused fluid to accumulate in her abdomen, giving her the outward appearance of pregnancy.

Joanna may not have left us a new Messiah but she did leave something else. She left a mysterious sealed box and strict instructions that it was only to be opened at a time of the nation’s direst need. The box could also only be opened in the presence of twenty-four bishops who had spent a fixed amount of time studying the writings and prophecies of Joanna Southcott beforehand. Although she still had many followers, there have never been twenty-four bishops willing to give credence to her claims.

12 27 harry priceIn 1927 a psychic researcher called Harry Price was sent a mysterious box that allegedly had belonged to Joanna. He began by asking people who claimed to be mediums to guess what was inside. Documents were an obvious and fairly popular guess. He then had the box x-rayed and the images showed, among other things, books, coins, a dice box, a pair of earrings and a horse-pistol. Price did try quite hard to get some bishops to come and attend the actual opening of the box but no one was very interested. He did open it though, much to the consternation of Joanna’s remaining followers. The objects inside, as well as those mentioned included a lottery ticket and a piece of paper printed on the River Thames on February 3rd 1814. The books turned out to be romantic novels. Price found the objects to be of historical significance and concluded that they certainly had belonged to Joanna Southcott. Though had he not known it, he would never have guessed that they were the belongings of a prophetess. If you want to know more about the opening of the box and see one of the x-rays, you’ll find it here.

Her followers claimed that this was not the box that Joanna had meant and that they still had another box in their possession that contained the real secret. Around the time of the First World War, a group of them had got together and bought several properties in the town of Bedford. There, they collected all the gifts that had been given to Joanna for her expected miraculous child. They also prepared a room for the twenty-four bishops who would one day come to open the box. The last surviving member of the group died in 2012. Their box may be now lost somewhere in the depths of the British Museum.

Please To See The King

12 26 good king wenceslasToday is Saint Stephen’s Day. The day on which Good King Wenceslas looked out. It is also called Boxing Day and is traditionally the day on which servants received gifts from their employers and were allowed to go home to their families after spending all of Christmas Day being servants. Their gift, their Christmas box, might contain money and left over food from the feast. The ‘box’ part of Boxing Day may also refer to a metal box placed outside churches for people to put in gifts to be given to the needy. It is a day for helping the less fortunate, which is why we find Wenceslas and his page trudging out into the snow with gifts of meat, wine and pine logs.

12 26 tempus adest floridumThe tune of Good King Wenceslas is actually belongs to a spring carol called ‘Tempus adest floridum’ (It is time for flowering) which dates from the thirteenth century. The words were written by John Mason Neale in 1853. Academics seemed generally not to like it very much and rather hoped it would just go away. It has been called “poor and commonplace to the last degree” and the “product of an unnatural marriage between Victorian whimsy and the thirteenth-century dance carol”. Which just goes to show that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. As an aside (it is really easy to get distracted writing this blog) a version of tempus adest floridum appears in the original Carmina Burana, not the Carl Orff version, the huge collection of bawdy, irreverent and satirical poems which date from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries on which it is based. It contains the lines: “Virgines cum clericis simul procedamus, Per amorem Veneris ludum faciamus” (Virgins and clerics, let us go out together, let us play for the love of Venus)

12 26 wrenIn parts of the British Isles there is another tradition of December 26th known as ‘The Feast of the Wren’. In folklore and legend, the wren is a tricky bird with a mixed reputation. Perhaps he gave away the hiding place of Saint Stephen and was ultimately responsible for his martyrdom. Perhaps he foretold the murder of Julius Caesar. Perhaps he ruined a secret, night time attack by the Irish on their Viking invaders by picking some crumbs off a drum and waking everyone up. In a fable attributed to Aesop, a wren wins a contest to find out which bird can fly the highest by hiding among the feathers of an eagle and then flying out when the eagle was too tired to go any higher. The wren is clever and, for this reason, he is the King of the Birds. The wren’s association with midwinter pre-date Christianity. The bird has a habit of singing even in the depths of winter. In the Netherlands it is known as ‘winterkoninkje’, little winter king. Celtic mythology considered the wren to be a symbol of the old year.

12 26 wren boysOriginally, the Feast of the Wren involved hunting down a wren and tying it to a pole that was decorated with ribbons and flowers. It was then paraded around the village. The ceremony was carried out by a rather raucous bunch known as ‘the wren boys’. They wore masks and ragged suits of motley or of straw. They probably had a noisy band with them too. They would go to each house asking for money for their wren king. Sometimes a feather from the bird would be exchanged for a donation. A wren feather would bring good luck. Sailors and fishermen believed that a wren feather would protect them from shipwreck. If anyone failed to give money, the wren might be buried outside their door which, as you might guess, was very bad luck indeed. The money collected was used to fund a huge party for the community. The wren king tradition still survives in Ireland and has been resurrected in other parts of the British Isles. We don’t use a live wren any more. A fake wren is made and hidden so the wren boys still have to hunt for it. Also it is more likely that the money raised will be given to charity.

12 26 wren boxI first learned about this tradition from a song I learned called ‘Please To See The King’ at a choir I used to sing with. There are quite a lot of traditional folk songs connected with the hunting of the wren, If you care to, you can hear the Steeleye Span version of the one I know here. A few years ago the song inspired me to make my own wren king. That’s him in the little box. He’s been out carolling a few times, but he lives on my living room wall now.12 26 wren box outside

Thinking Big

12 25 isaac newtonFirst of all, a very merry Christmas to you or, if Christmas is not your thing, I hope your day is going as well as can be expected. Today is the birthday of Isaac Newton. Well, it sort of is. It depends how you look at it. Newton was born on December 25th 1642. But in 1752, when Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar, his birthday became January 4th 1753. But, as he died in 1726, that didn’t trouble him, so it needn’t trouble us either.

Newton had a difficult start in life. Firstly, his father died three months before he was born and secondly, he was born extremely prematurely. Newton was so small that his mother said he would have fitted into a quart pot, that’s two pints. Then, when he was three, his mother remarried and left him behind with his grandmother when she went to live with her new husband. Newton clearly did not enjoy this arrangement. When he was nineteen, he wrote a list of what he considered to be his sins. Among them was “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them”. There are others that betray his quick temper: “Punching my sister” and “Wishing death and hoping it to some”. But most are more innocent. Eating an apple in church and baking pies on a Sunday.

Newton was a natural philosopher, which is what we would now call a scientist. He was born in the same year that Galileo died and, at that time, everyone was still pretty shocked by Galileo’s suggestion that the earth was not at the centre of the universe. He grew up in difficult times, the Civil War, the beheading of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the restoration of Charles II all happened before he was twenty.

He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge where he worked hard and read all the latest scientific ideas. By this time everyone was pretty happy to accept the earth and other planets went round the sun, but the question was how. Descartes thought that all things in the universe were part of a machine, like a clock. Newton wasn’t so sure. He thought it all seemed a bit vague and the only statements that you could really say were true were ones you could prove by experiments or calculations.

In 1665 the whole university had to close because of an outbreak of bubonic plague. Newton went home, but continued to work there. It was from this time that his famous falling apple story originates. According to Newton, it was an apple falling in his garden that made him think that the force that pulled the apple towards the ground was the same force that kept the moon in orbit. He spent a long time trying to work out what the strength of that force must be, but he couldn’t quite make his calculations work and he put them aside. But he did manage to figure out a way of calculating the speed of the falling apple at any point between the tree and the ground. He had invented a terrifically complicated branch of mathematics called calculus. With calculus it is possible to work out how all sorts of things change, not just velocity. It is used to predict the movements of the stock market and to see what the effects of climate change might be.

12 25 reflecting telescopeIt was also at this time that he made his discovery that white light was made up from all the colours of the rainbow combined. You probably know he did this using a prism. But before this, he did another experiment on himself. He took a large needle, stuck it between his eyeball and his skull and wiggled it around a bit to see how it affected his vision. He saw white, dark and coloured circles. Don’t try this at home. He also noticed that the curved edges of the lens in a telescope tended to work in the same way as a prism and create coloured flares around the object being observed. Telescopes were, in those days, many feet long and quite cumbersome. Newton built himself a much shorter telescope, which used mirrors instead of a lens, that was free from the colour distortion. He had invented the reflecting telescope. It was only six inches long but could magnify forty times, much better than a telescope ten times as long. The huge telescopes we use today, even the ones we launch into space, are based on Newton’s model. He thought of it as just a toy, but one of his friends took it to show Charles II and, as a result, he was made a member of the Royal Society and became pretty famous.

But Isaac Newton was working on other things as well, that he didn’t tell anyone about. Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Alchemists were an odd lot by today’s standards. They used a series of complex experiments to try to produce a substance called ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’. With it, they believed they could cure all illnesses, make themselves immortal and make lead into gold. There were lots of alchemists in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe who were employed by royalty and noblemen to make gold for them. The penalty for failure was high. They would be hanged from a gilded scaffold, perhaps wearing a suit of tinsel, just to draw extra attention to their hubris. Alchemy was actually forbidden in Britain because the government was worried that they would use their fake gold to debase the currency. No one really knows why Newton took up alchemy, or what he was trying to do. We do know that he thought there was some lost knowledge about the world that was to be found in the form of coded alchemical recipes hidden in Greek myths. His notes on these experiments are oddly worded, which is not unusual for alchemists. He refers to ‘the green lion’ and ‘the minstrel blood of the sordid whore’. It’s all very esoteric and not at all what you would expect from a person we think of as such an important figure in the Age of Reason.

It wasn’t just his Alchemy that Newton kept a secret. He also had some pretty dangerous religious views that he kept to himself. He didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity. He did believe in an all powerful God, but the more he read, the less he believed that Jesus was divine. If anyone had found out, he would certainly have lost his job and his credibility and probably would have been imprisoned. He owned more than thirty bibles and studied them intensely. He used them, combined with astronomical information to date the beginning of civilization to around 980 BC. He also looked to the future and calculated that the apocalypse would happen no sooner than the year 2060, which is looking a bit closer to us than it did to him. He applied the same level of attention to this as he did to his scientific work and spent about thirty years on it. Newton actually wrote more about alchemy and theology that he did about maths and science, though these writings were not discovered until fairly recently. For him religion and science were equally important in his quest to understand the universe.

12 25 newtons principiaBy the time he was in his early forties though, he went back to physics. Edmund Halley asked him a question about the shape of orbit described by a planet. Newton had worked it out ages ago and it was an ellipse. Astronomers thought that the planets were held in orbit around the sun by some force, but they didn’t know what it was. Newton used his calculus to prove that it was gravity that made the planets move the way they did. But he wanted to know why they remained in motion. He worked tirelessly over the next eighteen months to figure it out. The result was his most famous work ‘Principia Mathematica’. It was hugely important and explained how the whole universe might work and how everything in it obeyed the same laws of gravity. If you throw a ball it travels in an arc because it is must eventually fall back to earth. But planets also travel in an arc for basically the same reason. His Principia is where he came up with his three laws of motion. That an object will tend to remain travelling in a straight line, that its speed depends on the force that started it moving and that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The moon remains in orbit around the earth because the speed that it is moving is balanced by the pull of the Earth’s gravity. The proportions are just right to stop it either drifting away from us or falling down to earth. If this was true for the earth and the moon, it could be true for the whole of the solar system, the whole of the universe. He called it his ‘Universal Law of Gravitation’.

In case you’re feeling intimidated by his towering intellect, here’s one more story about Newton. He is credited with having invented the cat flap. As any cat owners will know, you waste a lot of time opening and closing doors for them when they want to go in and out. To get round this problem, he cut a hole in the door of his workroom. But then his cat had kittens. So he cut a smaller hole next to it for the kittens to go through. It didn’t occur to him that the kittens would just follow their mother through the big one.