Like a lot of people, I was absolutely entranced by this year’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It wasn’t just the stunning visuals and mind-blowing science, it was the stories of the people who have carried us this far. The giants upon whose shoulders we now stand. Michael Faraday, William Herschel, Joseph von Fraunhofer, Cecilia Payne, Edmond Halley, and, of course, Isaac Newton (to name a few). Cosmos made them all come alive, and gave me a thirst to know more about them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the series will be continued. So, for anyone like me, its time to hit the books. Let’s begin with the man who laid the foundation of the modern world – Isaac Newton.
“He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarrelled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after.”
Isaac Newton is a peculiar figure. Anyone who has received any semblance of a liberal education can probably name him and some of his achievements. You may even be able to recall his pointed nose and luscious hair. But what do we know beyond that? Where was he born? How did he work? What drove him? This is where James Gleick steps in. Many of you may know of Gleick. He’s a prominent science writer, with several other great books out there (a review of The Information is forthcoming). But the deftness with which he brings science to the less erudite is really on show with this biography. It’s not a long book, more of a Newton summary really, but it hits the high points. It begins with a visit to Woolsthorpe – where Newton was born, works through his education and scientific awakening, and finishes with Newton’s legacy. That last subject being something that could fill whole libraries.
“What Newton learned remains the essence of what we know, as if by our own intuition”
For a small book — my edition comes in at under two hundred pages — there is an incredible amount to be gleaned about the life of Isaac Newton. How many of us really consider Isaac Newton the ostensible orphan? When school children learn about his theories in science textbooks, do we realise how hard up the young Newton was for simple paper and pens, let alone textbooks? When we imagine him sitting under the Apple tree (surely a myth), do we conjure the ways the young Newton really did turn the natural world into a veritable laboratory? How many of us imagine a man famous for calculating his way through the mysterious of the cosmos, also filling notebooks with the ingredients for paint, the Bible’s hidden codes, and lists of thousands of nouns in different languages (etc.)? His forays into alchemy and other scorned fields are legendary, but did you know Newton had to be goaded into publishing his legitimate work? Even his famous Principia? Textbooks and popular imagination give us an image of Newton as a robot genius. But Gleick reveals him to be so much more. An irascible yet modest man, whose insatiable thirst for knowledge changed the world.
“It was nature’s destiny now to be mathematised. Henceforth space would have dimension and measure; the moon would be subject to geometry.”
Newton’s life is fascinating, and, as all good biographers do, Gleick has revealed his subject to be much more than our cartoonish popular conception. The book is well written, really, I demolished it in a day. But it’s arguable how much this is due to it’s readability as to it’s length. And it’s the length that gets me. Gleick really, manages little more than pulling back the curtain on a giant of the modern age. And when you consider how much context he must provide — on the age of Enlightenment, the wars with Hooke and Leibniz over no less than Gravity and Calculus (etc.) — it’s no wonder we emerge on the other end having barely touched his personality or character. Newton was a revolutionary, his shadow still falls over science, economics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and much, much more. As a short dip into his life and works, Gleick’s book is more than sufficient. As a study of one of the most influential men in history, it leaves a lot to be desired.
“No one feels the burden of Newton’s legacy, looming forward from the past, more than the modern scientist. A worry nags at his descendants: that Newton may have been too successful; that the power of his methods gave them too much authority.”
Title: Isaac Newton
Author: James Gleick
Pages: 191 (Paperback)
Josh’s Rating: 3/5
Amazon Link: Isaac Newton