Isaac Newton’s occult homework sells for US$500K — despite dog damage

A scorched page from Isaac Newton's notes is shown. Sotheby's

The dog didn’t eat Isaac Newton‘s homework. It burned it.

A scorched bundle of the famous scientist’s notes has sold for more than US$500,000 at auction, despite a bit of fire damage caused by his pyro pooch.

The so-called “homework” was a collection of partially burned, unpublished notes that Newton wrote about the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Newton had been trying to find a secret code in the pyramids’ measurements, amid one of his fruitless plunges into the realms of alchemy and the occult.

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Newton’s dog, Diamond, apparently didn’t grasp the gravity of his work. Legend has it that Diamond once jumped up on Newton’s desk, toppling a candle onto the notes and partially burning them before the scientist could put the fire out.

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The scorched notes constitute three pages of Newton’s handwriting and date back to the 1680s, according to Sotheby’s. The auction house sold the notes on Tuesday for £378,000, or approximately US$504,700.

“All three leaves have suffered fire damage with loss of paper and text at the edges, and have been expertly conserved and stabilized,” Sotheby’s wrote in the listing.

A scorched page from Isaac Newton’s notes is shown. Sotheby's

The notes show Newton puzzling over the Great Pyramids’ measurements in cubits, and trying to find connections between those numbers and Biblical prophecies. Newton hoped the numbers would help him predict the timing of the Apocalypse or perhaps reveal proof of his theory of gravity, according to Sotheby’s.

The man is perhaps best-known for his academic writings, his theory of gravity and his encounter with a falling apple, but he also explored all manner of religious, magical and pseudo-scientific concepts that didn’t pan out.

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“Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason,” economist John Maynard Keynes once said. “He was the last of the magicians.”

The notes offer a glimpse into Newton’s magical investigations.

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Newton believed that ancient humans had measured the Earth with secret methods that had since been lost. He hoped to unlock that secret by calculating the exact value of a cubit, which was a rough form of measurement used long ago. In the Bible, for instance, the measurements of Noah’s ark are given in cubits.

The notes show that Newton was trying to find the value of a cubit by examining the measurements of tunnels, rooms and bricks inside the Great Pyramids at Giza. He suspected that the value had been passed down from ancient philosophers through the ages, and from the Egyptians to the Greeks.

“It is likely that when making these notes he hoped that the pyramid would give him the measure of the earth and prove gravitational theory,” Sotheby’s says.

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Newton gave up on his investigation before publishing the Principia, his landmark work. He did not publish his occult investigations, and they only came to light in the 1930s after some of his papers were made public.

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“It is not surprising that he did not publish on alchemy, since secrecy was a widely held tenet of alchemical research, and Newton’s theological beliefs, if made public, would have cost him (at least) his career,” Sotheby’s wrote.

“He left behind vast manuscript writings on biblical exegesis and other theological subjects, presumably in the hope that his secret knowledge would reach a select and receptive readership in future generations.”

It’s unclear who the select reader was who purchased the notes, but hopefully they’ll keep them away from dogs and open flame.