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Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer Paperback – 26 Jan 2010
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According to traditional accounts, Newton was the first modern scientist. As creator of the theory of gravity, calculus, modern theories of light and devisor of the three laws of mechanics, his methods are perceived as the genesis of modern science. Yet the traditional version of his life fails to tell the full story. How, for example, could Newton's apparent empiricism be married with his interest in alchemy and magic? What had inspired him in his discoveries? How did he reconcile his scientific discoveries with his religious faith? Who was this man who, historians tell us, remained a virgin all his life and who seemed to be an argumentative egomaniac on the one hand, and a kindly old man on the other?
About the Author
Michael White was a science lecturer before becoming a full-time writer and journalist. He is the author with John Gribbin of the bestselling Stephen Hawking – A Lifetime in Science. He is a regular contributor to the Sunday Times, the Observer,the Daily Telegraph, GQ, Focus and New Scientist.
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White also does a good job of explaining the bleak atmosphere at Cambridge University in the 17th century, and the workings and politics of the Royal Society, then in its infancy. Both institutions were very different then to how they are in the 21st century.
As the title of the book suggests, White places much emphasis on Newton's alchemy endeavours, and how Newton saw alchemy as a way of explaining nature and the universe, and providing an insight into the mind of God. To Newton, and to many others of the period, alchemy meant a lot more than transmuting base metals into gold, or finding the elixir of life. Newton was not alone in believing that ancient civilisations had a much fuller understanding of nature, the universe and God and that these revelations had been lost in the mists of time but could be re-discovered through the ancient art of alchemy and by studying the bible. White explains all of this very clearly. Newton carried out an enormous number of alchemical investigations to try to unlock the meaning of life, as well as undertaking detailed analyses of the bible for similar purposes. Whilst I could accept that someone in that era, even someone like Newton, could see good reasons for carrying out alchemy and re-interpreting the bible, unfortunately White didn't convince me that Newton's research in these areas had been crucial to leading him to his conclusions on gravitation. To me that really didn't make sense and in a way this is a pity because it seemed to be an important objective of the book.
Another theme through much of the book was the personal antagonism between Newton and others. A prime example was Newton's abhorrence of Robert Hooke, and vice-versa. This mutual loathing is documented elsewhere but I did feel that White painted Hooke to be blacker than he really was. Other accounts refer to Hooke's popularity and his honesty. I can't help feeling that both scientists were equally to blame for the detestation that existed between them. Likewise, Newton held a grudge against the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, who he felt was hindering his work on the second edition of the Principia by dallying over the provision of astronomical observations. Newton used Machiavellian methods to undermine Flamsteed, even using Prince George as a way of getting at the data. Another victim of Newton's malevolence was the polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who had independently invented calculus, but who found himself being accused of stealing Newton's (then unpublished) work. Newton was unforgiving of those who he believed had crossed him and he bore grudges against these individuals for ever more.
But from the book we learn that whatever Newton did, he invested all of his efforts into that undertaking, be it carrying out investigations into alchemy, optics and gravitation, running the Royal Mint, or being President of the Royal Society. Over his lifetime he acquired many enemies and seems to have made few friends. And those friends he did make did not always get the loyalty from Newton they may have expected in times of adversity.
Overall, Michael White paints a vivid picture of a genius who was a workaholic but also a vindictive misanthrope who sought to destroy those he fell out with. On the whole a thoroughly nasty individual but one who was nevertheless widely respected for his abilities, if not for his personality. I look forward to reading more biographies by White.
The book is not overly scientific. It does not go into the mathematics or describe any of Newton's theories in great detail. Depending on your view point this may be a strength or a weakness, but it does make the biography easily accessible to readers who do not have a scientific background.
The biography also paints a lesser known side of Newton - namely Newton the civil servant. As warden and then master of the Royal Mint the biography gives an entertaining account of Newton as he tries to restructure the Royal Mint and increase efficiency, while simultaneously bringing to justice currency counterfeiters with almost a religious zeal.
However, I found the most enjoyable sections of the biography to be the accounts of Newton's feuds with other well known historical figures of the time - namely: Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed (First Astronomer Royal), and Gottfried Leibniz. Most enjoyable was his battle with Leibniz, and the battle for the title of "discoverer of Calculus". This gave an insight into the dark side of Newton and his ruthlessness when dealing with adversaries.
Overall a great read and highly recommended but personally I would of liked to of seen a little more scientific detail (in particular at least a mention of the second most famous equation in all of physics - F = ma).
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