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Isaac Newton Hardcover – 1 May 2003
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It is a brave writer who tackles a biography of the world famous pioneer mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton and James Gleick has acquitted himself superbly well in his new bookIsaac Newton. Accolades to Newton were piling up even during his early lifetime in the 17th century when such fame was usually confined to royalty, popes and archbishops and certainly not to ordinary mortals born in 1642 of yeomen stock in deepest rural England. According to Gleick, Newton was the first person whose attainment "lay in the realm of the mind" to have a state funeral and be buried in Westminster Abbey. A Latin inscription proclaimed his "strength of mind almost divine" with "mathematical principles peculiarly his own" and declared that "mortals rejoice that there has existed so great an ornament of the human race"--not bad for a farm boy from Lincolnshire.
Sensibly, Gleick, a well-known American science writer and author of the acclaimed Chaos, focuses a great deal on how such a transformation could happen to anyone with such humble beginnings at that time in British history. There is no doubt Newton's innate talent and genius but he was also lucky in that he had excellent schooling and through the intervention of a relative he was able to go to the University of Cambridge and went on to stay there most of his professional life. His mother supplied him with "a chamber pot; a notebook of 140 blank pages... a quart bottle and ink to fill it, candles for many long nights, and a lock for his desk". Try sending your child to university so equipped today.
Of course the critical achievements of Newton's life were in his scientific achievements and here is the real problem: how to explain them for the general reader when even academic mathematicians today find much of the detail of Newton's work hard to comprehend. This is largely because Newton did not have today's familiar technical language or standard units of measurement available to him; he really was exploring terra incognita and feeling his way. But this is exactly what Gleick manages to get over so well and there is so much more. Aside from it being an eminently accessible biography, illustrations, extensive notes, bibliography and index make this an invaluable source for anyone who wants to enter the wonderful and arcane world of Sir Isaac Newton. --Douglas Palmer --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
'The book has the magic of a wonderful laboratory experiment…A masterpiece of clarity – so difficult to write, so easy to read.' Michael Holroyd
'A fresh and brilliant portrait of his personality and life, the people who mattered to him, the influences which played on him, and the contexts of his achievements.' Oliver Sacks
'After reading Jim Gleick's beautifully written and intimate portrait of Newton, I felt as is I'd spent an evening by the fire with that complex and troubled genius.' Alan Lightman
'It's beautifully paced and very stylishly written: compact, atmospheric, elegant. It offers a brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination' Richard Holmes--This text refers to the Paperback edition. See all Product description
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This is a great book: Gleick's prose, while undeniably efficient, is nonetheless possessed of a disarming elegance and his analysis is insightful and engaging: I found myself lowering the book and staring into space pondering its implications a good deal.
We tend to think of Newton as the father of the modern enlightenment without concluding that, ergo, the times he inhabited were QED un-enlightened. This makes the amount and scope of a single man's achievement all the more stunning: parameters we take absolutely for granted - such as the measurable and consistent passage of time - for most purposes, just didn't exist: it was by Newton's singular and cantankerous will that we became "enlightened" at all. Science, mathematics philosophy and religion were simply not the carefully compartmentalised and ontologically parsed disciplines they are today: they were merely different aspects of the same tangled skein.
Gleick also records how indebted our now "untangled" skein is to Newton's ministrations: were the programmes of Robert Hooke or Gottfried Leibniz - great antagonists of Newton's in their day - to have prevailed, the uncomfortable suspicion is that our scientific landscape now might look very different. Newton's famous deference to the shoulders of giants was in reality uttered in false modesty with reference to a competitor, Hooke, whom he despised. That fact alone ought to trouble the more revisionist historians of science. Indeed, "a slightly naughty thought" occurs to Hermann Bondi: "we may still be so much under the impression of the particular turn he took ... We cannot get it out of our system".
Quite. This is a deft and elegant biography. Well recommended.
A very disappointing and very hard-going read for anyone who simply wants to learn and understand about Isaac Newton the man and his work.
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