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A universal mind
on 12 July 2004
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. Gleick shows how Newton focussed on problems with an intensity few have demonstrated. Even in employment as Warden of the Mint, Newton pursued counterfeiters with a Rambo-like dedication - even accompanying culprits to the gallows. His brief stint as a Member of Parliament, however, was virtually silent. He was perturbed by his developing scepticism of the Holy Trinity - this while teaching at the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Cambridge University. These thoughts, too, he kept closely concealed. Only the dispute over gravity with Robert Hooke brought him reluctantly forth.
Although Newton's accomplishments were vast, Gleick relates how the great thinker understood he was only uncovering beginnings. Even those beginnings, however, were deemed "mechanistic" by the later Romantics - a label applied to science even today. Gleick rebuts this hostile view in his conclusion. However Newton's personality is viewed, his accomplishments readily surpass puerile complaints. Without him, Gleick reminds us, much of today's world would not exist. Cassini would not be orbiting Saturn, returning its amazing images to us, without him.
This book isn't highly detailed, and that's right and proper. Massive volumes of Newton's life already exist. Gleick has provided a tasteful and effective teaser for those wishing to learn more of this amazing man. He's even provided images of some of Newton's notes and observations imparting the flavour of Newton's thinking. Start here, you will not be disappointed. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]