Newton's Dark Secrets

Distributed by WGBH Boston, 125 Western Avenue, Boston, MA 02134; 617-300-2000
Produced by NOVA / BBC
Directed by Chris Oxley
DVD, color, 56 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Biography, Physics, Religion

Reviewed by Tim Bryant

Date Entered: 3/22/2006

This historical documentary of Sir Isaac Newton's life and accomplishments intends to shed light on neglected aspects of the seventeenth-century scientist's religious beliefs and research into alchemical processes. Though Newton's scientific beliefs led him to disagreement with the Cartesian model of a clockworks universe and the alternate conceptualization of gravitational force, he also believed that material existence was the product of a divine creator (though his views on the trinity were unorthodox for his time) and practiced alchemy, an outlawed practice of experimenting with the secret structures of matter. While revelation of these "dark secrets" adds drama and counters previous depictions of Newton as an irreligious scientific rationalist, sufficient attention to Newton's development of calculus and research into optics balances the recovered data on Newton's religious influences with an excellent review of the more widely known scientific accomplishments. Production quality is high. Actor F. Murray Abraham's narration alternates with testimonials from leading historians and scientists, including one who recently succeeded in replicating the results of Newton's alchemical experiments. Playing Newton, actor Scott Handy is understated and engaging, especially when he breaks the frame to address the viewer directly; brief dramatic scenes reenact turning points in Newton's scientific thought. The DVD also includes a six-page PDF file of teaching materials, including an outline of the video program and a hands-on class activity about decoding alchemical symbols. In addition to closed captioning, accessibility options include audio descriptions of visual content. Educators may find this title valuable for reviewing the standard scientific history, introducing Newton's religious views, or considering the relationship between science and religion.