Isaac Newton was born in a stone farmhouse in 1642, fatherless and unwanted by his mother. When he died in London in 1727 he was so renowned he was given a state funeral--an unheard-of honor for a subject whose achievements were in the realm of the intellect. During the years he was an irascible presence at Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton imagined properties of nature and gave them names--mass, gravity, velocity--things our science now takes for granted. Inspired by Aristotle, spurred on by Galileo's discoveries and the philosophy of Descartes, Newton grasped the intangible and dared to take its measure, a leap of the mind unparalleled in his generation.
James Gleick, the author of Chaos and Genius, and one of the most acclaimed science writers of his generation, brings the reader into Newton's reclusive life and provides startlingly clear explanations of the concepts that changed forever our perception of bodies, rest, and motion--ideas so basic to the twenty-first century, it can truly be said: We are all Newtonians.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
- Pulitzer Prize
Gleick's most renowned writing falls into one of two categories: vivid character studies or broad syntheses of scientific trends. Here, he fuses the two genres with a biography of the man who was emblematic of a new scientific paradigm, but this short study falls a bit short on both counts. The author aims to "ground this book as wholly as possible in its time; in the texts," and his narrative relies heavily on direct quotations from Newton's papers, extensively documented with more than 60 pages of notes. While his attention to historical detail is impressive, Gleick's narrative aims somewhere between academic and popular history, and his take on Newton feels a bit at arms-length, only matching the vibrancy of his Feynman biography at moments (particularly when describing Newton's disputes with such competitors as Robert Hooke or Leibniz). As might be expected, Gleick's descriptions of Newton's scientific breakthroughs are clear and engaging, and his book is strongest when discussing the shift to a mathematical view of the world that Newton championed. In the end, this is a perfectly serviceable overview of Newton's life and work, and will bring this chapter in the history of science to a broader audience, but it lacks the depth one hopes for from a writer of Gleick's abilities.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 07, 2004
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Excerpt from Isaac Newton by James Gleick
Medieval, in some disrepair, the Woolsthorpe farmhouse nestled into a hill near the River Witham. With its short front door and shuttered windows, its working kitchen, and its bare floors of ash and linden laid on reeds, it had belonged to Newton's forebears for just twenty years. In back stood apple trees. Sheep grazed for acres around.
Isaac was born in a small room at the top of the stairs. By the terms of feudal law this house was a manor and the fatherless boy was its lord, with seigniorial authority over a handful of tenant farmers in nearby cottages. He could not trace his ancestry back past his grandfather, Robert, who lay buried in the churchyard nearly a mile to the east. Still, the boy expected to live managing the farm in the place of the father he had never known. His mother, Hannah Ayscough, had come from gentlefolk. Her brother, the Reverend William Ayscough, studied at Cambridge University on his way to joining the Anglican clergy; now he occupied a village rectory two miles away. When Isaac was three years old and his widowed mother near thirty, she accepted a marriage offer from another nearby rector, Barnabas Smith, a wealthy man twice her age. Smith wanted a wife, not a stepson; under the negotiated terms of their marriage Hannah abandoned Isaac in the Woolsthorpe house, leaving him to his grandmother's care.
War flared in the countryside all through his youth. The decade-long Great Rebellion began in the year of his birth: Parliamentarians fighting Royalists, Puritans recoiling from the idolatry they saw in the Church of England. Motley, mercenary armies skirmished throughout the Midlands. Pikemen and musketeers sometimes passed through the fields near Woolsthorpe. Bands of men plundered farms for supplies. England was at war with itself and also, increasingly, aware of itself-its nationhood, its specialness. Divided as it was, convulsed over ecclesiastical forms and beliefs, the nation carried out a true revolution. The triumphant Puritans rejected absolutism and denied the divine right of the monarchy. In 1649, soon after Isaac turned six, Charles Stuart, the king, was beheaded at the wall of his palace.
This rustic country covered a thousandth of the world's landmass, cut off from the main continent since the warming of the planet and the melting of polar ice 13,000 years before. Plundering, waterborne tribes had settled on its coasts in waves and diffused into its downs and valleys, where they aggregated in villages. What they knew or believed about nature depended in part on the uses of technology. They had learned to employ the power of water and wind to crush, grind, and polish. The furnace, the forge, and the mill had taken their place in an economy that thereby grew more specialized and hierarchical. People in England, as in many human communities, made metal-kettles of copper and brass, rods and nails of iron. They made glass. These crafts and materials were prerequisites now to a great leap in knowledge. Other prerequisites were lenses, paper and ink, mechanical clocks, numeric systems capable of denoting indefinitely small fractions, and postal services spanning hundreds of miles.
By the time of Newton's birth, one great city had formed, with about 400,000 people; no other town was even a tenth as large. England was still a country of villages and farms, its seasons ordered by the Christian calendar and the rhythms of agriculture: lambing and calving, haymaking and harvest. Years of harvest failure had brought widespread starvation. Roving laborers and vagrants made up much of the population. But a class of artisans and merchants was coming into its own: traders, shopkeepers, apothecaries, glaziers, carpenters, and surveyors, all developing a practical, mechanical view of knowledge. They used numbers and made tools. The nucleus of a manufacturing economy was taking shape.
When Isaac was old enough, he walked to the village dame school, where he learned to read and studied the Bible and chanted arithmetic tables. He was small for his age, lonely and abandoned. Sometimes he wished his stepfather dead, and his mother, too: in a rage he threatened to burn their house down over them. Sometimes he wished himself dead and knew the wish for a sin. On bright days sunlight crept along the wall. Darkness as well as light seemed to fall from the window- or was it from the eye? No one knew. The sun projected slant edges, a dynamic echo of the window frame in light and shadow, sometimes sharp and sometimes blurred, expressing a three-dimensional geometry of intersecting planes. The particulars were hard to visualize, though the sun was the most regular of heavenly objects,