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"Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light." Alexander Pope,
This review is from: Isaac Newton (Paperback)
At this time of the year, I select a few books about diverse subjects and re-read them with the hope that new insights will occur that I missed previously. That is certainly true of this book (first published in 2003 when I last read it) and Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine (1997). Dozens of other reviewers have already covered most of the strengths and pleasures of James Gleick's book about Isaac Newton (1642-1727), one that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I prefer to cite four of several dozen passages that caught my eye. They are representative of the thrust and flavor of Gleick's thinking and writing.
"No one understands the mental faculty we call mathematical intuition+; much less, genius. People's brains do not differ much, from one to the next, but numerical facility seems rarer, more special, than other talents. It has a threshold quality. In no other intellectual realm does the genius find so much common ground with the idiot savant. A mind turning inward from the world can see numbers as lustrous creatures; can find other in them, and magic; can know numbers as if personally." (Page 38)
The author of Micrographia (published in 1665) was Robert Hooke, "a brilliant and ambitious man seven years Newton's senior, who wielded the microscope just as Galileo had the telescope. These were the instruments that penetrated the barrier of scale and opened a view into the countries of the very large and the very small. Wonders were revealed there. The old world -- the world of ordinary scales -- shrank into its place in a continuum, one order among many." (62)
John Locke (1632-1704) "had just completed a great work of his own, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), and saw the Principia [Newton's Philosophię Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a three-volume explanation of his laws of motion and universal gravitation] as an exemplar of methodical knowledge. He did not pretend to follow the mathematics. They discussed theology -- Locke amazed at the depth of Newton's biblical knowledge -- and these paragons of rationality found themselves kindred spirits in the dangerous area of anti-Trinitarianism." (145)
"The Principia marked a fork in the road: thenceforth science and philosophy went separate ways. Newton had moved from the realm of metaphysics many questions about the nature of things -- about what exists -- and assigned them a new name, physics. 'This preparation being made,' he declared, 'we argue more safely.' And less safely, too: by mathematizing science, he made it possible for its facts and claims to be proved wrong." 184-185)
Two concluding points. First, I selected Pope's observation ("Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light") for the title of this review because, in fact, Newton was neither the first nor the last to illuminate major realities in the natural world that had previously been ignored, misunderstood, or simply not recognized. That leads to a second point: It was a twelfth-century French Neo-Platonist philosopher, scholar, and administrator, Bernard of Chartres, and not Newton who first explained, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." However, countless others (including Albert Einstein) have since stood on Newton's shoulders for almost three centuries.