In many ways, Isaac Newton fits the mould of the oddball genius. At one moment, he seems like a founding father of the modern world: entirely rational and empirical, subjecting the received wisdom of Aristotle et al. to the rigours of scientific enquiry. But the very next minute, he seems, in the words of JM Keynes, like 'the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and the Sumerians', speculating about Armageddon and the nature of 'aether'. It is fitting that the Principia, his magnum opus, was published in Latin, while at the same time its abstruse mathematics was way too advanced for virtually all of his contemporaries.
Part of the success of this VSI is its presentation of a mind caught between two worlds - ancient and modern. Iliffe resists the temptation to focus exclusively on Newton's more mainstream scientific achievements - achievements which have formed the bedrock of modern physics. Indeed, the central section of the book is given to an examination of Newton's rantings and musings on alchemy and religion, twin pursuits which occupied him for a longer period than science did. Even when directing his formidable intellect to scientific matters, it is salutary to learn that Newton could occasionally express fallacious ideas in the clumsiest, most opaque language: gravitational rays fall to earth, he speculates, forming a 'tender matter which may be as it were the succus [sic.] nutritious of the earth or primary substance out of which things generable grow'. No Q.E.D. at the end of this one!
Newton comes across as more of a mortal than a magus, and not a particularly kindly one at that: cantankerous, combative, never one to admit he's made a mistake. We all know the type. But amidst all the wild speculation and bizarre obsession - he thought a careful reading of the poems of Virgil and Ovid would show their understanding of Universal Gravitation - lies a work of immense stature, the Principia Mathematica.
Illife's lively narrative reveals a warts-and-all genius. It takes an essentially chronological, narrative approach and can therefore seem a little pedestrian. It also suffers from some poor proof-reading - chemistry lecturer Vagani becomes Vagari in the next line, etc. But this portrait is well-rounded, succinct and engaging nonetheless.