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Newton: The Making of Genius Hardcover – 24 May 2002
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...a brilliant analysis of scientific thinking over the last three centuries. -- Good Book Guide, June 2003
Isaac Newton is now universally celebrated as a genius of science, renowned for his innovatory work on gravity and optics. Yet Newton did not always enjoy such legendary status. His posthumous reputation has constantly changed and is riddled with contradictions. NEWTON investigates the different ways in which Newton's life and works have been interpreted at different times. It charts his transformation into a scientific genius, explaining the changing attitude of the scientific community towards Newton's ideas, from Berkeley to Einstein. It also explores the making of Newton the national hero, through the myths that surround him and the many artistic and literary descriptions of him. NEWTON tells the fascinating story of Newton's reputation, shedding light on the growth of science generally and on our changing attitude towards our intellectual heritage. 'Fara's brilliant book is not so much a biography as the story of a phenomenon . . . fascinating' Scotsman 'Fara does not debunk Newton as recent novelists have but delivers him more whole and greater than ever' Sunday Herald --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product description
Top customer reviews
We know so little about the Isaac Newton the person, and yet most of us know of him and his achievements. We don't really know what he looked like, and yet there are a number of differing images available. The accomplishments attributed to Newton in science and mathematics are significant. In his `Principia Mathematica', published in 1687, Newton reasons the universe in terms of a few differential equations. This is profound, but was not accessible to many. The publication of `Opticks' in 1704 had a more direct impact. In that work, Newton described the refraction of sunlight through a prism into a rainbow of colours. The arguments in this book had an immediate impact and its popularity caused greater attention to be paid to `Principia Mathematica'.
But this book is less about Newton's science and mathematics as it is about his impact on other thinkers. Ms Fara also investigates the different ways in which Newton's life and work have been interpreted over the past three centuries.
It is ironic that Newton, who never lost his Christian faith, had presented the Age of Reason with the tools to argue alternate views of the universe. Newton's many admirers included Thomas Jefferson, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and his mistress Emilie du Chatelet. Voltaire's admiration of Newton was part of an `Angolmania' that spread amongst the cultural and intellectual elite of France in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, a Romantic reaction had set in against Newton and science. In `Lamia' - John Keats wrote:
Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine--
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
Three years earlier, Keats had agreed with Charles Lamb that Newton `had destroyed all the Poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.'
In the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes had this to say:
`Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians ... Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonder child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage... Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood... He regarded the Universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty--just as he himself wrapt the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.'
This is an interesting book about Isaac Newton and his influence. It is is not a conventional biography of Isaac Newton: the facts of his life have frequently been disputed and his posthumous reputation has its own contradictions. This book left me wanting to know more about Newton's life, and also to read more of the books Ms Fara refers to.
`We can only view Newton's accomplishments and experiences through the refracting prism of a society that has itself been constantly changing.'
The book is mostly about Newton's reputation and how this has grown with the growth of science. Much of the narrative is about events outside of Newton's lifetime. We get a whole chapter about how Newton's image has been portrayed in paintings, engravings and busts and another about statues and monuments to Newton. Elsewhere, myths and poems about Newton are discussed.
Sensibly, we are not given a chronological map of Newton's rise to fame. The chapters are thematic and are much clearer because of it. However, this made the book seem much more esoteric for someone expecting a biographical story as I was.
This is all elegantly outlined (as we would expect from a Cambridge academic) but it will appeal to a much smaller audience than a conventional biography. I made the mistake of judging the book by its front cover and I wish I had spent more time reading the small print on the back cover, where the aims and the scope of the book are clearly stated. I have put the book up for sale on Amazon and will now invest in either Richard Westfall or James Gleick, who have both written highly recommended biographies of Newton.
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