The day I met Isaac Newton

Javier Rivero
3 min readJan 17, 2024

Entering Westminster Abbey, a historic church and final resting place of many great minds located in the heart of London, I eagerly started looking for Isaac Newton’s gravestone. My search abruptly ended as I stumbled upon a large gravestone inscribed “Isaacvs Newton Eques Auratus,” Latin for “Here lies Sir Isaac Newton.”

Isaac Newton’s Gravestone at Westminster Abbey

I was starstruck, I was in the presence of ‘The last of the magicians,’ someone I’d long admired. Yet, the proximity to his tomb was eclipsed in comparison to the thrill of running my fingers over the original pages of one of the most important works in the history of science, written in 1687, ‘The Principia Mathematica’ at the Royal Society of London. (Fun fact: I was instructed to wash my hands before handling the legendary book.)

It was in that moment, while turning carefully each of the already worn-out and scribbled pages — full with all of his (at that time) ground breaking and new discoveries, proofs, and rebuttals — that I truly felt his presence.

Most of his writing, I observed, began with very fancy typography that slowly faded into a hurried and almost unreadable writing, a testament to a mind so busy with ideas that even his hand couldn’t keep up with. You could also see annotations on the back of some pages, even some small diagrams and draft of equations, using every inch of space as if the manuscript itself were a last resort for his overflowing thoughts.

That day, was the day I truly met Isaac Newton.

Original Manuscript by Newton provided by the Royal Society in London

Trying to summarize his impact on human knowledge is no easy task, but I think his gravestone dillgently summarizes his legacy by stating:

"Here lies Sir Isaac Newton, Knight, who with almost divine intellect and unique mathematical principles, charted the orbits of planets, the trajectories of comets, the ebb and flow of the tides, the nuances in light rays, and, in a feat unmatched by predecessors, the properties of the colors thus produced."

The breadth of Newton's contributions becomes even more unfathomable when considering that, three centuries later, his mathematical frameworks remain fundamental for modern space exploration.

If learning a new language is challenging, try considering the monumental task of inventing one. Through meticulous observation, he created a new one, calculus. This language revolutionized our ability to predict celestial movements, encapsulating the sentiment expressed by Franz Achard: "A physicist who avoids measurement is merely playing, distinguished from children only by the nature of their games and toys."

Newton's work was no mere play; it was the foundation upon which modern science is built.

Isaac Newton’s life, like many historical figures, is not immune to criticism. His temporary blindness caused by staring directly at the sun, and his relentless pursuit of alchemy — a pursuit often seen as a deviation from ‘real’ science — are often seen as something negative. Some speculate he kept his alchemical studies secret to avoid discomforting his orthodox academic peers. However, I disagree, I believe the real reason Newton never published his extensive alchemical research was his own dissatisfaction with the results. He failed to definitively uncover the secrets he believed God placed in the universe, including the elusive philosopher’s stone.

Original signed engravings provided by the Royal Society in London

Instead of ridicule or shame, Newton’s extensive and intense research on alchemy and his extreme fixation Christian Theology should be viewed as integral and fascinating aspects of his extraordinary work, reflecting an endless quest for understanding beyond conventional boundaries.

Isaac Newton’s study of theology and alchemy, much like his other scientific endeavors, was driven by a deep and complex set of motivations, reflecting his lifelong interest in the fundamental truths of the universe.

Given that the word ‘philosophy’ is all about the love of wisdom, I think that he wasn’t just ‘The last of the magicians’ as John Keynes famously said; he was a true lover of wisdom, through and through.