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"for Newton ... there was no completeness, only a questing - dynamic, protean, and unfinished.",
This review is from: Isaac Newton (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... [and dealt in] nature without spirit." Whilst on the other, we know that Newton speculated as much, or maybe more, on esoteric ideas we certainly wouldn't call science now.
Gleick resolves the paradox thus: "for Newton himself there was no completeness, only a questing - dynamic, protean, and unfinished." Certainly he was a fascinating man, but not, apparently, a charming one. Michael Hoskin observes, in his excellent book on William and Caroline Herschel, Discoverers of the Universe, that, whilst he grew to love the Herschels ever more as he wrote their story and got to know them better (particularly William), his academic colleagues working on Newton generally end up hating him!
There's the rather sad spat between Newton & Hooke, about light, and ideas of whether light is particles or waves, an idea that continued to vex humanity "until", says Gleick, "[C20th] physicists vanquished the paradox by accepting it." There's also the issue of precedence (and getting the ideas and the maths itself right) regarding 'The Calculus'. Marcus De Sautoy comes out on Leibniz's side, as you'll hear if you listen to his excellent Brief History of Mathematics. But in his lifetime Newton exercised all his considerable powers to put Leibniz down and give himself credit. Gleick observes that, as ugly as it was, "Yet the priority dispute contributed to the transition of science from private pursuit to public enterprise."
All in all an excellent book: a fascinating story about a fascinating man who, if anyone does, exemplifies the following idea of Koestler's: "If conquerors be regarded as the engine drivers of history, then the conquerors of thought are perhaps the pointsmen who, less conspicuously to the traveller's eye, determine the direction of the journey."