In a lecture Wednesday at the Beinecke Library, historian Scott Mandelbrote discussed his recent work authenticating a lost Isaac Newton notebook.
Adnan Bseisu, contributing photographer
When Scott Mandelbrote, director of history studies at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, traveled to Bonhams auction house in London in 2021, he had to sneak into the building after 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 friend at Cambridge, John Wickins.
The visit sparked a months-long study of the notebook in which Mandelbrote set out to determine the notebook’s authenticity and make a recommendation to Cambridge University Library on whether or not to purchase it.
On November 16, the Beinecke Library invited Mandelbrote to deliver the Van Sinderen Lecture 2022 to an audience of members of the Yale community and the general public. Mandelbrote focused the talk on the process he undertook to authenticate the notebook.
“[We must] think about the problem of how one tries to avoid being a victim of a forgery,” Mandelbrote told the audience at the start of the conference. “If any of you decide that he disagrees with me and that he believes that I and the institution I have advised have been guilty of such a mistake, please say so.”
Written in English and Latin in the late 1670s, the notebook contains evidence that Newton’s views on religion were already deviating from, or at least contemplating, Christian orthodoxy at the time. It also contains correspondences between Newton and Wickins on Newton’s scientific work. Wickins often found the necessary materials and helped Newton with his experiments.
Sidney Hirschman ’22 appreciated the opportunity to learn about the extensive process behind authenticating a manuscript as the lost notebook through Mandelbrote’s talk.
“If you were to show it to me, I would say yes, it is real, because you are the Isaac Newton scholar,” Hirschman said. “It’s very interesting to see how you do that investigative work to determine if something is possibly authentic or not.”
Mandelbrote explained that the authentication of the manuscript was important because it would change the understanding of Newton in the public realm.
Mandelbrote argued that a better understanding of Newton as a person would contribute to a better historical understanding of the scientific practices that produced the important discoveries of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
“The [Bonhams] The description of the notebook ended with a note that the manuscript used to attribute to [Wickins] has substantial differences with the hand in [the] notebook,” Mandelbrote said. “So the question is: is any of this true? That was the question I was asking myself when I walked in. [related] volumes eventually.
Mandelbrote said answering this question was made difficult by the fact that little of Wickins’ handwriting existed beyond a signature ascribed to him in an admissions book, which experts believe he signed when he applied for a minor scholarship at Trinity College. in 1660. As the Bonhams label noted, the hand on this signature differs from that on the notebook.
During his research, Mandelbrote discovered another manuscript, a letter to the Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens, that matched the hand on the notebook. His job, then, became to find out who had written this manuscript before attributing the notebook to that same author.
“Fortunately, and I was very glad when I remembered this… in Newton’s letter to [his friend] Halley, says: “Yesterday I unexpectedly stumbled upon a copy of the letter I spoke to you for. [Huygens]. It is in the hands of one John Wickins, who was my camera partner at the time,’” Mandelbrote told the audience. “That tells me that this is truly Wickins’ hand.”
However, Mandelbrote still recognized the possibility, however unlikely, that a sophisticated forger would make the same link between Newton’s letter to Halley and the letter to Huygens. They could then have proceeded to copy the hand of the letter to Huygens by forging Wickins’s notebook.
To eliminate this possibility, Mandelbrote continued his research and came across an unpublished manuscript by Joseph Beaumont, a Cambridge academic. The manuscript discussed a resurrected rite of passage at the University that required all resident Masters of Arts to undergo a public display of theological orthodoxy through questioning and debate.
Mandelbrote noted that the notebook’s theological content answered exactly the questions Beaumont asked scholars to discuss, and concluded that part of the notebook’s text was a transcript of a speech Newton delivered at Cambridge.
“So the notebook must be what it says it is,” Mandelbrote said. It must be a lost Isaac Newton notebook in the hands of his friend John Wickins.
Hirschman was very surprised by what Newton scholars, and scholars in general, still do not know about his subjects.
“You tend to think that scholars of a certain subject, or a certain person, will know everything about it,” Hirschman told the News. “But that’s not really possible. People are putting things together the best they can, just like everyone else. It reminds you that scholars are people too.”
Rustam Nuriev ’26 also attended the conference and found the bidding process for manuscripts like the lost notebook very surprising. He noted that he was especially intrigued by how the process is open and benefits wealthy collectors over institutions like Cambridge.
“Collectors can pay millions of dollars to get a piece of paper written by Newton or any other important historical figure,” Nuriev said. “And they’re not even legally required to preserve the historical manuscript…they should be stored and preserved by universities like Cambridge or Yale.”
In fact, Mandelbrote confirmed to the News that collectors who outbid universities for important works can be problematic. He said Cambridge University Library was lucky the notebook’s auction was not popular with wealthy collectors.
Bonhams lists the final sale price at £62,750many times under the “conservative estimate” of £250,000, Mandelbrote told the library that they should have been willing to pay for the manuscript in advance of the offer.
Isaac Newton gifted a copy of his most important work, the Principia, to Yale College in 1717. It now resides in the 1742 Library at Beinecke.
#Scott #Mandelbrote #Cambridge #lectures #Newtons #lost #book