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Isaac Newton Paperback – 7 Jun 2004


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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (7 Jun. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007163185
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007163182
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.1 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 22,091 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

It is a brave writer who tackles a biography of the world famous pioneer mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton and James Gleick has acquitted himself superbly well in his new bookIsaac Newton. Accolades to Newton were piling up even during his early lifetime in the 17th century when such fame was usually confined to royalty, popes and archbishops and certainly not to ordinary mortals born in 1642 of yeomen stock in deepest rural England. According to Gleick, Newton was the first person whose attainment "lay in the realm of the mind" to have a state funeral and be buried in Westminster Abbey. A Latin inscription proclaimed his "strength of mind almost divine" with "mathematical principles peculiarly his own" and declared that "mortals rejoice that there has existed so great an ornament of the human race"--not bad for a farm boy from Lincolnshire.

Sensibly, Gleick, a well-known American science writer and author of the acclaimed Chaos, focuses a great deal on how such a transformation could happen to anyone with such humble beginnings at that time in British history. There is no doubt Newton's innate talent and genius but he was also lucky in that he had excellent schooling and through the intervention of a relative he was able to go to the University of Cambridge and went on to stay there most of his professional life. His mother supplied him with "a chamber pot; a notebook of 140 blank pages... a quart bottle and ink to fill it, candles for many long nights, and a lock for his desk". Try sending your child to university so equipped today.

Of course the critical achievements of Newton's life were in his scientific achievements and here is the real problem: how to explain them for the general reader when even academic mathematicians today find much of the detail of Newton's work hard to comprehend. This is largely because Newton did not have today's familiar technical language or standard units of measurement available to him; he really was exploring terra incognita and feeling his way. But this is exactly what Gleick manages to get over so well and there is so much more.
Aside from it being an eminently accessible biography, illustrations, extensive notes, bibliography and index make this an invaluable source for anyone who wants to enter the wonderful and arcane world of Sir Isaac Newton. --Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'The book has the magic of a wonderful laboratory experiment…A masterpiece of clarity – so difficult to write, so easy to read.' Michael Holroyd

'A fresh and brilliant portrait of his personality and life, the people who mattered to him, the influences which played on him, and the contexts of his achievements.' Oliver Sacks

'After reading Jim Gleick's beautifully written and intimate portrait of Newton, I felt as is I'd spent an evening by the fire with that complex and troubled genius.' Alan Lightman

'It's beautifully paced and very stylishly written: compact, atmospheric, elegant. It offers a brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination' Richard Holmes


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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 12 July 2004
Format: Paperback
With almost poetic grace, Gleick portrays the life and thinking of history's most expansive mind. Works on Newton aren't as common as might be expected. The task of addressing such a monumental mentality is formidable, to say the least. Only the most ambitious or analytical could attempt it. Gleick's effort encompasses the major facets of Newton's life, including his academic, political and religious aspects. He avoids the modern approach of delving into Newton's psyche or recapitulating three centuries of scholarly disputation. Even the "falling apple" story is redrawn as Newton's realisation that apparent size compared with distance expressed a relationship needing explanation. The result is a clean, unobstructed view of a complex man - and his legacy.
From meagre beginnings Newton carved an expansive niche in European scholarship. His skills, noted early, brought him a Cambridge appointment at 27. Already showing great promise, he was a reluctant publisher. He sequestered himself in his rooms, later in a small cottage. He'd lived almost alone during his childhood, but his curiosity led him in many directions. The prism experiments, breaking sunlight with a prism, began his long career in what is now deemed "physics". Light's properties were the subject of great dispute, with Newton holding to emitted particles. Waves seemed to adhere to the Cartesian "vortices" which Newton found suspect. Playing with mirrors and lenses led to the reflecting telescope widely used today. Thinking about the heavenly bodies he observed led, of course, to his idea of gravitational attraction. Not a popular idea then, since such forces were disdained.
It's difficult to assess whether his delving into the facts of nature led to his personal isolation, or the reverse holds.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Rob Crompton on 18 May 2004
Format: Hardcover
An excellent read for those interested in the person of Newton. Gleick does an excellent job of presenting the story of his life within the context of the wider scientific and philosophical world at the time.Those expecting a good deal of mathematics will be disapointed but lets face it there's plenty of maths and history of maths around! Those readers who really insist on looking more closely at this aspect of his work could do what I did and furnish themselves with a copy Motte's translation of Principia.
My only cricism of the work would be the extensive section of notes - all necessary I agree but many, other than simple references, could have been included in the main body of the text. I found it quite irritating at times having to flick back and forth and this spoilt the continuity somewhat.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful By DDS VINE VOICE on 21 Mar. 2005
Format: Paperback
Isaac Newton is argueably one of the most important figures in physics. Living during the times of the scientific revolution where science was distancing itself from art, Newton is credited with playing a major part in creating and documenting the new scientific theories with his book Principia Mathematica. Surprisingly however there are few biographies of this important father of science available and James Gleick fills the gap with an account that is both incredibly readable and informative.
This biography of Newton takes us from his birth as a son of an illiterate farm worker through to his death bed, when he said that if he had seen further than other men, it was only by standing on the shoulders of giants. This book not only summarises his life and his scientific achievements but also makes the distinction that he was not only the first of the followers of the new scientific method but also the last of the old, an alchemist, a wizard and a magician.
Gleick's telling of Newton's life is so well written that even if I did not have a passion for the subject it would have evoked one. Newton's discoveries and thoughts have had such an impact upon the world - he invented calculus, discovered gravity and even one of the first to divide light into the seven colours of the rainbow. Yet Newton was a lonely man, shunning friendships, fighting bitterly with the great men of his age and standing on the brink of madness. He was both a scientist and deeply religious. A great but a strange man. This book is the perfect, well written summary to a great life, however for more detail you may have to look else where, for the casual reader however this book is perfection.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Sebastian Palmer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 15 July 2013
Format: Paperback
Some time ago now, having finished the passionate, inspiring, & fairly lengthy Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler, which ends its core element of biographical sketches with a brief picture of Newton, I wanted to learn more about Isaac. It may have been on a visit to Newton's childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, now a National Trust property, or it might have been via Amazon; either way, I bought Gleick's book in order to do so.

Compared with Koestler's sonorous impassioned prose Gleick is both terse and dry, bordering on arid in fact, but this does have the benefit of making for a more compact (if perhaps less thrilling) view. But this is perhaps appropriate for someone who revealed that "Each colour has its own degree of refraction. This was a bare, mathematical claim, with none of the romance or metaphor that usually ornamented the philosophy of light."

When Gleick says "Introspection told him that his imagination could see things as they really were" it all sounds purely cerebral and Platonic. So too when we read that Newton understood the moons gravitational affect on the tides without needing to see the sea, because "He understood the sea by abstraction and computation." But, crucially, and as we know from the history (and legend) of his life, Newton also experimented, even recklessly so as in his experiments with vision.

And also, in one of those great ironies of history, which Gleick keeps reminding us of, Newton himself isn't actually purely Newtonian... he's pre-Newtonian, especially in light of his mystical and alchemical interests and activities. But therein lies a seeming contradiction, on the one hand Gleick saying: "Newton was a mechanist...
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