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The Life of Isaac Newton (Canto original series) [Paperback]

Richard S. Westfall
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

29 July 1994 Canto original series
Isaac Newton was indisputably one of the greatest scientists in history. His achievements in mathematics and physics marked the culmination of the movement that brought modern science into being. Richard Westfall's biography captures in engaging detail both his private life and scientific career, presenting a complex picture of Newton the man, and as scientist, philosopher, theologian, alchemist and public figure, President of the Royal Society and Warden of the Royal Mint. An abridged version of his magisterial study Never at Rest, this concise biography is now published for the first time in paperback and makes Westfall's highly acclaimed portrait of Newton newly accessible to general readers.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Canto Ed edition (29 July 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521477379
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521477376
  • Product Dimensions: 13.8 x 2 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 981,945 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'That this is the best biography of Newton is easily and truthfully said … surely no one is going to repeat Westfall's immense and shrewdly conducted task in this century at least.' New Scientist

'… Westfall has organised his enormous task beautifully and done our most elusive worthy proud.' M. Ratcliffe, The Times

'… It provides a masterly, well-documented summary of contemporary views of all the many facets of Newton's astoundingly wide-ranging career … and will be essential reading for aspiring Newtonian scholars.' Marie Boas Hall, Nature

'Altogether, this book should be considered an indispensable acquisition for any intelligent reader's bookshelf ... excellent value for money.' Webb Society Quarterly Journal

Book Description

Isaac Newton was indisputably one of the greatest scientists in history. An abridged version of Richard Westfall's magisterial study Never at Rest, this concise biography is now published for the first time in paperback and makes Westfall's highly acclaimed portrait of Newton newly accessible to general readers.

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First Sentence
ISAAC NEWTON was born early on Christmas Day 1642, in the manor house of Woolsthorpe near the village of Colsterworth, seven miles south of Grantham in Lincolnshire. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, Broad, a Little Dry 18 May 2010
By Hagrid's Umbrella VINE VOICE
As its Cambridge press I guess I should have known this would be a very academic book. Not difficult to read after a little adjustment having come from a lot of popular fiction recently but nether the less pretty dry until it approached the end. Not sure if more life was pumped into the text or I'd just become engrossed.

I didn't know too much about Newton other than his Law's of Physics in the Principia and that he studied Alchemy but I certainly found out that there's a lot more to this man than that. My motivation for reading the book was to find out a lot more about this clever man from than 400 years ago that "gave" us gravity and "wasted" a lot of time studying alchemy; for which I appreciated much more after reading this book. I read this purely as an interested layperson, not for any studies.

I hadn't appreciated the breadth of work he had study, the quality of his thinking, the intensity of this study and his reluctance (lack of confidence?) to publish. What I also found out was that he was a cantankerous and could certainly hold a grudge.

Newton's up bringing is covered which is interesting in itself and it may be insightful to the man's character. The rest of his life is covered in detail from his published studies at Cambridge on Optics and the Principia his major works and his time in London at the Royal Mint and the Royal Institute. There is also much about the priority dispute on who can take credit for Calculus, Newton or Leibniz.

An extra surprise for me was how much he studying theology and not only that but that he managed to marry up his scientific beliefs with his strong religious ones. It is also fascinating that his actual beliefs are heretical, based on his theological study, and, perhaps less surprisingly, that he hide them.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Genius - Isaac Newton 6 Aug 2002
By Shab Levy - Published on
The preface to "The Life of Isaac Newton" starts with "Few men have lived for whom less need exist to justify a biography." To this I would like to add that few books have been written which need to be read more than the "Life of Isaac Newton" by Richard Westfall.
A thorough research of the life and work of one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, if not the greatest, Westfall paints a vivid picture of the life of Newton from childhood to old age. He describes Newton as not only a scientific genius, but as the person who revolutionized science, and thus influenced the way of thinking, and indeed the way of modern life.
Newton, to be sure, was not an easy person to live with, nor was he a perfect human being. All this however pales in comparison to his superior intellect and deep understanding of nature. The book gives ample accounting of Newton's two great works "Opticks" and "Principia" and how these two have influenced the world he lived in, and the effects they left forever since.
This book is a necessary reading not only for those interested in science, but for all who want to have a glimpse into the way of life in the 16th and 17th centuries, and especially the way science and philosophy spread throughout the world.
Read it!
Shab Levy
Portland, OR 2002
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a good introduction but not so good a history 15 April 2007
By emily sablosky - Published on
Westfall's "Life of Isaac Newton" is everything the other reviewers say in regards to it being a good ABRIDGED biography of Newton. True, it is based in thorough scholarship and has served for the basis for many other Newton biographies to follow. But I would strongly caution any historian, whether by hobby or profession, to solely consult this book when referencing or discussing Newton. Westfall's abridged version lacks any mention of references (unless you count the very incomplete bibliographical essay at the end) in either footnotes, endnotes, or a comprehensive bibliography. In order to trace his references, one must consult his much more complete "Never at Rest", which is, altogether, a much more academic book. Don't get me wrong, "The Life of Isaac Newton" is easy to read and a good foundational text but should not serve as an authority on Newton, but rather a companion to a more authoritative text on Newton.

Aside from the historiographical issues in this book, if it is to serve as an introduction to early modern science, it might also help readers to know that they should read, at some point, some sort of text that deals with British history from the Sixteenth through Eighteenth centuries, as Wesfall provides no historical or political background in which to understand Newton. Based on my own reading of books to suit this purpose I would recommend Simon Schama's "History of Britain, vol. 2"; "Leviathan and the Air-pump" by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer; "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes, or "The Scientific Revolution" also by Steven Shapin (which would be less of a cultural or political history but a good introduction to the issues with history of science in the seventeenth century).

As an alternative to Westfall's abridged version, I would also suggest (though he is not an academic, he is a pretty well-regarded science journalist with a very readable style) James Gleick's "Isaac Newton" which is a little shorter and more in depth in some regards (and does completely cite references).
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Newton abridged 2 Dec 2008
By R. Prebble - Published on
This book is an abridged version of the author's much larger full biography, Never at Rest, published in 1980. In the preface the author notes that this is very much an abridgement rather than a rewrite, because his interests have changed and he could not do justice to the research on Newton that had gone on in the intervening years to 1993. This makes the work 28 years out of date, although in historical terms it is hard to know if this is an issue.

The perceptible difference is in the tone. Early on in the book, especially, Westfall adopts an almost sycophantic attitude to Newton's genius, constantly assessing each event in terms of whether it demonstrates the great man's ability, and nudging us knowingly when other thinkers have not recognised this towering intellect before he has published anything. I'm not sure a (non-revisionist) writer setting out to write Newton's biography today would adopt such an attitude, and would hopefully be more inclined to tell the story and let the events speak for themselves.

Happily, as the book goes on and Newton's talent is recognised we are given a glimpse of the man himself, and it truly is a fascinating vision. I found Newton's obsession with alchemy and the Holy Trinity (which, for him, represented the Beast of Revelation) even more fascinating than his work on optics and gravitation. Newton comes across as a man of almost aspergic obsessiveness and aversion to engage in normal social interactions, one who set terrifyingly high standards, both intellectual and moral, which only he, working prodigiously in a position many treated as a sinecure, could ever hope to aspire to.

I can see why the author was asked to produce this book: it is about the right length for someone peripherally interested in Newton, and without the mathematics, which many would find off-putting. In the 20th century Einstein is generally portrayed as the quintessential genius, tousle-haired and absent-minded, but anyone reading this biography of obsession and single-mindedness would be forced to pass the mantle to Newton.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insight into a Genius 17 April 2006
By Rachel Smith - Published on
The Life of Isaac Newton, by Richard Westfall, addresses the life and work of one of the greatest scientists of all time. Indeed, many consider Isaac Newton to be the greatest scientist of all time, because his work was the culmination of the Scientific Revolution. Westfall covers Newton's unhappy childhood, from which he escaped to Cambridge University where he emerged as a solitary, studious individual. Newton's genius found expression during the anni mirabilis, 1664-1666, when Cambridge was closed due to the plague. During these years, Newton explored a wide range of scientific issues, including mathematical physics, optics, mechanics, and celestial dynamics. He expanded upon Descartes' geometry, to develop the calculus. He conducted experiments with light, concluding that white light is made up of a series of colors. Newton also pursued studies of the movement of objects, following up on the work of Gallileo. Westfall covers Newton's lengthy career at Cambridge, where he devoted his life to his studies, avoiding most relationships and incurring animosity and resentment among many of his fellow scientists, including Robert Hooke. Newton's masterpiece was the Principia, in which he laid out his three laws of motion: inertia; acceleration; and action and reaction. Newton also presented the laws of universal gravitation. Westfall was compelled to write this biography - which is a shortened version of his larger, more technical study - to share the unfolding of the amazing genius who discovered so many of the laws underlying the physical world. This book is worth reading because it provides in an accessible form insights into the discoveries in the fields of mathematics and physics that ushered in the world of modern science.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to the man. 25 July 2006
By MrSherlockHolmes - Published on
Newton has been a fascinating figure for me, ever since I read a condensed history about him in one of those INTRODUCTION TO series, I think that one was on Quantum Physics. What fascinated me about Newton was his singleness of mind, a genius who devoted himself almost entirely to the pursuit of knowledge.

Westfall's book is a condensation of an earlier book _Never at Rest_ which I have not had the pleasure of reading. Westfall presents the life of Newton warts and all. It describes his rise to prominence in the scientific world of his time and all the events leading to his most significant publication, the Principia.

What was new to me was Newton's arguments with Hooke and his behavior toward Flamsteed which diminish the man's greatness, in my mind at least. What may be interesting to readers of Newton, the man, rather than the Scientist, are his `latter years' in public service at the Mint.

Overall, I think Westfall kept the proper balance between presenting the works and person of the life of Newton. A worthwhile read.
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