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Brief and insightful biography of a singular man
on 2 February 2010
James Gleick certainly never lets you get bored. This biography of Sir Isaac Newton - a man who lived an improbable eighty four years and in that time invented much of mathematics, classical physics and optics, postulated gravity, ran the Royal Mint, relentlessly persecuted forgers and secretly devoted a fair bit of his life to alchemy - is done and dusted in under 200 generously margined pages, so being of a short attention span is no barrier.
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.