As is well-known to historians (although less so among scientists), Isaac Newton was a devout religious believer, an alchemist, and a seeker after ancient wisdom about God and the cosmos. He was a Unitarian, a belief not permitted at the time, and so he kept his religious views very, very close to himself and to a small circle of intimates. When his friend and fellow FRS, Nicolas Fatio de Duiller, publicly supported the millenarian French Protestant sect, the Camisards (aka The French Prophets), in London in the first decade of the 18th century, Newton kept in touch with him to learn of their prophecies, and came close to publicly supporting them also.
So when an historian writes the following it is very plausible, at least to people aware of Newton’s religious beliefs and interests:
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was also enamored of Egyptian wisdom, as we shall see in the next chapter, even if it is not clear that he accepted the Hermetic tradition. It was essential for his theory of gravitation to have an accurate measure of the world’s circumference, and for that he needed to calculate exactly a single degree of latitude. Newton was convinced that there was no need to send a team of surveyors to plot distances on the ground, as the French were doing. It was rather easier to determine the exact length of an Egyptian cubit, which ancient authors insisted was directly related to a degree of latitude. This information could be obtained from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, which was always believed (perhaps rightly) to enshrine perfect units of length, area and volume, as well as pi. Sadly, the results of the Pyramid experiment did not fit Newton’s calculations, but, instead of scrapping the theory, the great scientist blamed the surveyors instead. As luck would have it, the French astronomer Jean Picard (1620-82) succeeded in 1671 in measuring perfectly a degree of latitude in Sweden, so Newton could prove his theory of gravitation without the Egyptians.” (Katz 2005, page 31)
The reference the author David Katz cites for this story is Shalev 2002. But consulting that reference, we do not see mentioned the story Katz relates here. Instead, we find this sentence (on page 574):
As Robert Palter has argued in his critique on Bernal’s Black Athena, there is no evidence to show that Newton related his interest in the Egyptian cubit to his physics and geodesy.”
with the reference being to Palter 1993, pages 245 and following.
What is going on here? Has Katz mistakenly cited the wrong source for the story above, something easy enough to do in academic writing? Perhaps Katz could tell us. I hope it is a simple mistake in citation, and not something more sinister.
David S. Katz : The Occult Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present Day. (London, UK: Jonathan Cape).
Robert Palter : Black Athena, Afro-Centrism, and the history of science. History of Science, 31: 227-287.
Zur Shalev : Measurer of all things: John Greaves (1602-1652), the Great Pyramid and early modern metrology. Journal of the History of Ideas, 63: 555-575.