Temps reached into the 80s Saturday, making for a beautiful day. Mrs. Swellesley was off hiking in western Mass with friends. I was laying low, resting my legs in advance of a sure-to-grueling 5K road race.
OK, I guess I’ll actually pop over to the Babson College pop-up exhibit of Sir Isaac Newton artifacts that I signed up for back in July. How boring can it be?
As it turns out, not boring at all.
Sure, as I assembled in the lobby of the Sorenson Center I realized my worst fears. Asked by a visiting curator from the Huntington Library in California what drew us to this exhibit, the majority of the group responded that they were engineering grads from Olin College. A Wellesley College instructor also was in the mix. Then there was me, a lowly wordsmith looking for a touch of enlightenment.
While I know my basic Newtonian facts, such as the Big 3 laws and that he didn’t discover gravity by getting bonked on the head by an apple, I didn’t quite appreciate the extent to which he was one of those Ben Franklin types who was the best at seemingly everything he did. That he was doing STEM before there was STEM.
Not only was this down-to-earth 17th- and 18th-century figure a great mathematician and scientist, but the Master of the Mint, an alchemy enthusiast, and “the most learned religious scholar of his time,” according to Huntington’s Joel Klein, an alchemy expert himself. Newton’s religious research, including his own blasphemous beliefs, mainly came to light after his death, when collectors like Babson acquired his works at auction.
“No problem was too big for Newton,” Klein asserted.
Because this exhibit was so small, featuring about a dozen items enclosed in 4 cases borrowed from Harvard, attendees were forced to zero in on what was before them. It reminded me of The Raconteurs show I’d just attended at the House of Blues, where attendees were required to lock their phones in pouches to compel them to stare at Jack White and his band mates for 90 minutes instead of holding up and checking their phones during the show.
On display at Babson from Sept. 20-22 was just a sampling of the massive Newton collection assembled by Grace Babson, first wife of college founder Roger Babson. Roger Babson was known to have a fascination with Newton’s laws, applying them to business, as well as with the concept of anti-gravity.
The Newton exhibit, set in a black box theatre, included an original edition of Principia, THE math book, with Newton’s hand-scrawled notes in the margins. Also on display were very old coins, at least one of which was clipped, or cut off around the edges. Schemers did this to sell off the silver and still use the coin for its own value. Though they did so at the risk of being burned, hung or drawn and quartered. Such ploys were high crimes at the time, Klein said.
A cryptic Newton sketch related to his efforts to discover the philosopher’s stone, which in theory could turn base metals into silver or gold, also made for interesting viewing. Especially after Klein noted Newton’s focus on the substance antimony, and something about the “menstrual blood of a sordid whore.”
I didn’t see that coming.
Nor did I foresee myself reserving a book called Newton and the Counterfeiter from the library after my visit. But I did.