The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 3. The End of the World

In the 1650s and ’60s the long-simmering fear of God’s wrath grew acute. Every Christian knew his Bible, and everyone knew that the Bible talked of a day of judgment. The question was not whether the world would end but how soon the end would come. The answer, it seemed, was very soon.

Almost no one believed in the idea of progress. (The very scientists whose discoveries would create the modern world did not believe in it.) On the contrary, the nearly universal belief was that the world had been falling apart since Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. Now, it seemed, the fall had accelerated. From high and low, in learned sermons and shrieking pamphlets, men pointed out the signs that the apocalypse was near.

At some moment, at any moment, in one historian’s summary, “The trumpet would sound, motion would cease, the moon turn to blood, the stars fall like withered leaves, and the earth would burn to the accompaniment of horrible thunders and lightnings.” In the midst of this chaos, the dead would rise, and saint and sinner alike would receive a sentence that permitted no appeal and no pardon. In the minds of our ancestors, this was not rhetoric but fact. God had ordained it, and it would be so.

The debate about the timing of the end was intense and widespread. Today warnings that “the end is nigh!” are the stuff of television preachers and New Yorker cartoons. In the seventeenth century this was urgent business. Deciphering biblical prophecies was as much a mainstream, high-stakes concern then as poring over stock market figures is now. Similar waves of fear had arisen before, for no clear reason, and then died down just as mysteriously. That was no consolation. “Books on the Second Coming were written by the score during this period,” one eminent historian observes, “and members of the Royal Society were preoccupied with dating the event.” They proceeded methodically, looking for hidden meanings in biblical texts or manipulating numbers cited in one sacred passage or another.3

Many scholars and scientists pointed with alarm to a particular figure—1,260 years—that popped up at several different places in the Bible.4 At some point in the past, they believed, the clock had started ticking. Twelve hundred and sixty years from that moment, the world would end. The question that obsessed the most powerful minds of the Royal Society was, when had the countdown begun? One frequently cited date—400 A.D., a time of “great apostasy” when true Christianity had been subverted. It did not demand the mathematical talent of Isaac Newton to see that 1,260 years from 400 A.D. brought one to the year 1660.

Jesus himself had talked of the signs that would announce the final days. At the Mount of Olives the disciples had asked him, “What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”

War and misery on Earth, Jesus had replied, and chaos in the heavens. “Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes.” And then, after still more afflictions, “Shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven.”

Now, both on Earth and in the heavens, danger signs abounded. Adulterers, blasphemers, and disbelievers had transformed London into a modern-day Babylon. Such carryings-on were nearly inevitable, for a long, dour Puritan interlude had only recently ended. Following Charles I’s execution in 1649, theaters had been closed, celebrations of Christmas banned, dancing at weddings outlawed.

After the restoration of the monarchy, in 1660, the mood changed utterly, at court and throughout the nation. Charles I had been earnest, stubborn, hidebound. Charles II was witty and restless, always ready to play another set of tennis, gamble on another hand of cards, chase after yet another beauty. Life at court was notoriously indulgent, with everyone from the king on down “engaged in an endless game of sexual musical chairs.” (The “Merrie Monarch” kept mistresses by the score, but in these early years of his reign he observed a sort of fidelity, restricting himself to one mistress at a time.) For the wealthy and the well connected generally, the tone of the era was one of cynicism and self-indulgence.

Inevitably, many people ignored the prophets of doom or scoffed at their warnings and lamentations. But like distant sounds of shouting at a party, the signals of something amiss tainted the festive mood. God would not be mocked. In 1662, terrified onlookers in the English countryside reported that several women had given birth to monstrously deformed babies. At the same time a brilliant star had mysteriously appeared in the night sky. From Buckinghamshire, in southern England, came reports that blood had rained from the sky. The heavens were all askew, just as Jesus had warned.

Then, in the fall of 1664, Europe and England saw a comet ablaze in the heavens. To the seventeenth-century mind, this was bad news. (The word disaster comes from dis, as in disgrace or disfavor, and astrum, Latin for star or comet.) The sky, unlike the Earth, was a domain of order and harmony. Comets were ominous intruders, and they had been feared for millennia. “So horrible was it, so terrible, so great a fright did it engender in the populace,” one eyewitness had written, about a comet in 1528, “that some died of fear; others fell sick . . . this comet was the color of blood; at its extremity we saw the shape of an arm holding a great sword as if about to strike us down. At the end of the blade there were three stars. On either side of the rays of this comet were seen great numbers of axes, knives, bloody swords, amongst which were a great number of hideous human faces, with beards and hair all awry.”

Comets were cosmic warnings, signs of God’s displeasure akin to lightning bolts but longer lasting. “The thick smoke of human sins, rising every day, every hour, every moment . . . [grow] gradually so thick as to form a comet,” explained one follower of Martin Luther, “. . . which at last is kindled by the hot and fiery anger of the Supreme Heavenly Judge.”

Unsettlingly, comets hung overhead for days before they disappeared. Where they went, or why, no one knew. Night after night, all one could do was check the sky to see if the dreaded visitor had appeared again and guess at what calamity it might foretell.

This newest comet refused to disappear. The fearsome sightings of 1664 persisted into November and then into December. On December 17, King Charles II and Queen Catherine waited late into the night to witness the spectacle for themselves. The public mood grew ever darker. In January, word came of an apparition near the comet—“a Coffin,” floating in the sky, “which causes great anxiety of thought amongst the people.”

An astrologer and member of the Royal Society, John Gadbury, warned that “this comet portends pestiferous and horrible winds and tempests.” Another astrologer foresaw “a MORTALITY which will bring MANY to their Graves.”

In March 1665, a second comet appeared.

Closer to home, the natural world seemed just as unsettled. Rumors and omens started with worrisome sightings—clouds of flies swarmed inside houses; ants smothered the roads; frogs clogged the ditches—and grew ever more lurid. Like Egypt in ancient days, England had angered God. Even the well educated passed along the latest news in horrified whispers, as frightened and fascinated as the most superstitious countrymen. “A deformed monster” had been born in London, the Spanish ambassador reported, “horrible in shape and color. Part of him was fiery red and part of him yellow. On his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of a camel, a long body and in place of a head a kind of tumor with the ears of a horse. Such monstrous prodigies are permitted by God to appear to mankind as harbingers of calamities.”

The greatest scientists of the age, Isaac Newton chief among them, believed as fervently as everyone else that they lived in the shadow of the apocalypse. Every era lives with contradictions that it manages to ignore. The Greeks talked of justice and kept slaves. The Crusaders preached the gospel of the Prince of Peace and rode off to annihilate the infidels. The seventeenth century believed in a universe that ran like clockwork, entirely in accord with natural law, and also in a God who reached down into the world to perform miracles and punish sinners.

Many of the early scientists tended not to pay much heed to monsters and bloody rains, but they pored over their Bibles in an urgent quest to determine how much time remained. Robert Boyle, renowned today as the father of chemistry, studied the Bible not only in English but in Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean, to ferret out hidden meanings. Newton himself owned some thirty Bibles in various translations and languages that he endlessly perused and compared one against another.

Every word in the Bible was meaningful, just as every twig and sparrow in the natural world offered up a clue to God’s intent. The Bible was not a literary work to be interpreted according to one’s taste, but a cipher with a single meaning that could be decoded by a meticulous and brilliant analyst. Newton devoted thousands of hours—as much time as he spent on the secrets of gravity or light—in looking for concealed messages in the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon and trying to match the prophecies in Revelation with the battles and revolutions of later days. “The fourth beast [in the book of Revelation] . . . was exceeding dreadful and terrible, and had great iron teeth, and devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet,” wrote Newton, “and such was the Roman empire.”

* * *

With nearly everyone in agreement that the end had drawn near, the debate turned to just how the end would come. One faction maintained that the world would drown in a global flood, as it had in Noah’s day; others held out for an all-consuming fire. The tide of fear rose ever higher as the ominous year 1666 appeared, because of the satanic associations of the number 666. Fear turned to panic when plague swooped down on England in 1665, a year ahead of schedule, and death carts began spilling their cargo into mass graves.