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With almost poetic grace, Gleick portrays the life and thinking of history's most expansive mind. Works on Newton aren't as common as might be expected. The task of addressing such a monumental mentality is formidable, to say the least. Only the most ambitious or analytical could attempt it. Gleick's effort encompasses the major facets of Newton's life, including his academic, political and religious aspects. He avoids the modern approach of delving into Newton's psyche or recapitulating three centuries of scholarly disputation. Even the "falling apple" story is redrawn as Newton's realisation that apparent size compared with distance expressed a relationship needing explanation. The result is a clean, unobstructed view of a complex man - and his legacy.
From meagre beginnings Newton carved an expansive niche in European scholarship. His skills, noted early, brought him a Cambridge appointment at 27. Already showing great promise, he was a reluctant publisher. He sequestered himself in his rooms, later in a small cottage. He'd lived almost alone during his childhood, but his curiosity led him in many directions. The prism experiments, breaking sunlight with a prism, began his long career in what is now deemed "physics". Light's properties were the subject of great dispute, with Newton holding to emitted particles. Waves seemed to adhere to the Cartesian "vortices" which Newton found suspect. Playing with mirrors and lenses led to the reflecting telescope widely used today. Thinking about the heavenly bodies he observed led, of course, to his idea of gravitational attraction. Not a popular idea then, since such forces were disdained.
It's difficult to assess whether his delving into the facts of nature led to his personal isolation, or the reverse holds. Gleick shows how Newton focussed on problems with an intensity few have demonstrated. Even in employment as Warden of the Mint, Newton pursued counterfeiters with a Rambo-like dedication - even accompanying culprits to the gallows. His brief stint as a Member of Parliament, however, was virtually silent. He was perturbed by his developing scepticism of the Holy Trinity - this while teaching at the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Cambridge University. These thoughts, too, he kept closely concealed. Only the dispute over gravity with Robert Hooke brought him reluctantly forth.
Although Newton's accomplishments were vast, Gleick relates how the great thinker understood he was only uncovering beginnings. Even those beginnings, however, were deemed "mechanistic" by the later Romantics - a label applied to science even today. Gleick rebuts this hostile view in his conclusion. However Newton's personality is viewed, his accomplishments readily surpass puerile complaints. Without him, Gleick reminds us, much of today's world would not exist. Cassini would not be orbiting Saturn, returning its amazing images to us, without him.
This book isn't highly detailed, and that's right and proper. Massive volumes of Newton's life already exist. Gleick has provided a tasteful and effective teaser for those wishing to learn more of this amazing man. He's even provided images of some of Newton's notes and observations imparting the flavour of Newton's thinking. Start here, you will not be disappointed. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 18 May 2004
An excellent read for those interested in the person of Newton. Gleick does an excellent job of presenting the story of his life within the context of the wider scientific and philosophical world at the time.Those expecting a good deal of mathematics will be disapointed but lets face it there's plenty of maths and history of maths around! Those readers who really insist on looking more closely at this aspect of his work could do what I did and furnish themselves with a copy Motte's translation of Principia.
My only cricism of the work would be the extensive section of notes - all necessary I agree but many, other than simple references, could have been included in the main body of the text. I found it quite irritating at times having to flick back and forth and this spoilt the continuity somewhat.
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VINE VOICEon 21 March 2005
Isaac Newton is argueably one of the most important figures in physics. Living during the times of the scientific revolution where science was distancing itself from art, Newton is credited with playing a major part in creating and documenting the new scientific theories with his book Principia Mathematica. Surprisingly however there are few biographies of this important father of science available and James Gleick fills the gap with an account that is both incredibly readable and informative.
This biography of Newton takes us from his birth as a son of an illiterate farm worker through to his death bed, when he said that if he had seen further than other men, it was only by standing on the shoulders of giants. This book not only summarises his life and his scientific achievements but also makes the distinction that he was not only the first of the followers of the new scientific method but also the last of the old, an alchemist, a wizard and a magician.
Gleick's telling of Newton's life is so well written that even if I did not have a passion for the subject it would have evoked one. Newton's discoveries and thoughts have had such an impact upon the world - he invented calculus, discovered gravity and even one of the first to divide light into the seven colours of the rainbow. Yet Newton was a lonely man, shunning friendships, fighting bitterly with the great men of his age and standing on the brink of madness. He was both a scientist and deeply religious. A great but a strange man. This book is the perfect, well written summary to a great life, however for more detail you may have to look else where, for the casual reader however this book is perfection.
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on 18 May 2016
James Gleick has offered his readership a scientifically sanitised but predominantly human biography of Sir Isaac Newton. Even when a reader actually works within the world of physical sciences, mathematics or analysis (as I do myself), I believe that sometimes we all wish to understand more about the private life of great, infamous or notable doers and thinkers.
Often in his field of work Newton was innovative and his theories were apt to be seminal. Calculus, light, motion, gravity, etc. all confirm his celebrated and deserved status. Additionally, although Gleick's book shows Newton to be idiosyncratic, particular of thought and almost toxically reclusive, Newton is also shown to be sufficiently self-aware to be able to accept and expound the notion that mankind was probably on the verge of exponential cerebral expansion. How right he was.
Further, the author reveals Newton as the spiritually-aware scientist, who eventually himself came to believe, that he was merely bringing to light (pun intended) The Creator's own technical and mathematical system by which the whole stable edifice of the known universe was built; and upon the health and well-being of which the world's very continuation would depend.
As a writer, Gleick excels himself in demonstrating Sir Isaac's paradoxically insular behaviour to peers and contemporaries whilst masking such a brilliantly extrovert mind containing such an unrivalled capacity for almost unbridled reason and accurate prognosis. The modern sub-atomic and algorithmically-charged machine-learning world today owes Newton so very much for pointing the way forward, but I believe readers have a debt also to Gleick for conjuring in homage Newton the man in an obviously admiring but readable style.
If you are interested, then please see my reviews on 'Newton's Gift' (Berlinski) - offering some maths and science; 'Isaac Newton The Last Sorcerer,' (White) - offering biography and alchemical adventures; and also 'Newton and the Counterfeiter' (Levenson) - offering the lesser-known Newton as 'Royal Mint 'production director' and 'counter-counterfeiting sleuth and thief-taker.'
Enjoy your Newtonian reading.
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on 8 June 2016
A explosive account of arguably the greatest geniuses in the history of Great Britain. The biography is very well structured, with detailed sometimes moving accounts of Newton's life, work and relations. I found the section on Newton's interaction with the coin industry to be my favourite.
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Some time ago now, having finished the passionate, inspiring, & fairly lengthy Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler, which ends its core element of biographical sketches with a brief picture of Newton, I wanted to learn more about Isaac. It may have been on a visit to Newton's childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, now a National Trust property, or it might have been via Amazon; either way, I bought Gleick's book in order to do so.

Compared with Koestler's sonorous impassioned prose Gleick is both terse and dry, bordering on arid in fact, but this does have the benefit of making for a more compact (if perhaps less thrilling) view. But this is perhaps appropriate for someone who revealed that "Each colour has its own degree of refraction. This was a bare, mathematical claim, with none of the romance or metaphor that usually ornamented the philosophy of light."

When Gleick says "Introspection told him that his imagination could see things as they really were" it all sounds purely cerebral and Platonic. So too when we read that Newton understood the moons gravitational affect on the tides without needing to see the sea, because "He understood the sea by abstraction and computation." But, crucially, and as we know from the history (and legend) of his life, Newton also experimented, even recklessly so as in his experiments with vision.

And also, in one of those great ironies of history, which Gleick keeps reminding us of, Newton himself isn't actually purely Newtonian... he's pre-Newtonian, especially in light of his mystical and alchemical interests and activities. But therein lies a seeming contradiction, on the one hand Gleick saying: "Newton was a mechanist... [and dealt in] nature without spirit." Whilst on the other, we know that Newton speculated as much, or maybe more, on esoteric ideas we certainly wouldn't call science now.

Gleick resolves the paradox thus: "for Newton himself there was no completeness, only a questing - dynamic, protean, and unfinished." Certainly he was a fascinating man, but not, apparently, a charming one. Michael Hoskin observes, in his excellent book on William and Caroline Herschel, Discoverers of the Universe, that, whilst he grew to love the Herschels ever more as he wrote their story and got to know them better (particularly William), his academic colleagues working on Newton generally end up hating him!

There's the rather sad spat between Newton & Hooke, about light, and ideas of whether light is particles or waves, an idea that continued to vex humanity "until", says Gleick, "[C20th] physicists vanquished the paradox by accepting it." There's also the issue of precedence (and getting the ideas and the maths itself right) regarding 'The Calculus'. Marcus De Sautoy comes out on Leibniz's side, as you'll hear if you listen to his excellent Brief History of Mathematics. But in his lifetime Newton exercised all his considerable powers to put Leibniz down and give himself credit. Gleick observes that, as ugly as it was, "Yet the priority dispute contributed to the transition of science from private pursuit to public enterprise."

All in all an excellent book: a fascinating story about a fascinating man who, if anyone does, exemplifies the following idea of Koestler's: "If conquerors be regarded as the engine drivers of history, then the conquerors of thought are perhaps the pointsmen who, less conspicuously to the traveller's eye, determine the direction of the journey."
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on 22 August 2016
I thought this was a bit different from our usual treatment of Newton, enjoyable to read and not too long. It takes us a bit closer to Newton the person in a relatively short text. It's a really worthwhile contribution for those interested in Newton. I found it gave plenty to meditate on, suggesting that further study and thinking on Newton is likely to continue to unfold. It reminded me to try to read more of Newton's non-scientific writings.
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on 18 September 2003
Isaac Newton. Indisputably one of the most gifted scientist of all time. The man invented calculus, brought experimental sceince to the masses, modelled the dynamic of nature with pen and paper. Now Glieck has brought out a book trying to introduce him to the non-scientific public, and he has a good stab at it. Unfortunately for Gleick is quite hard to get across just how much Newton did for the world in general and science in particular, especially when you're trying not to get technical (there are no equations in this. it's a "biography", not a histroy ofmathematics).
Whilst the book certianly gives a good description of Newton's middle life (from starting at Cambridge to his move to London around the age of 50) the author seems to get so caught up in the ideology that Newton was God's gift to science, nature and the world in general that everything he says has to have a melodramatic and romantic twist. As a result you read the book feeling like you're floating from one anecdote to the next without being told any details or really being captured bythe story.
Newton was undoubtedlly one of the very few people in history who can make a claim to be part of the top intellectual echelons, but it's a shame this claim is done justice by the quality of this biography. It says nothing less than that about the man himself - Gleick quite obviously holds Newton with great reverance - but the stories and tales are told in such a round about way sometimes that you quite often nmiss the point.
Still, it does a good job of noting the impact he had on science, gives you an insight into his personality (one that common of geniuses in eras gone by) and does so without you needing to understand the maths. If that sounds like what you want, buy it.
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on 3 May 2016
If you are looking for a highly poetic, dramatized, self-indulgent biography of Newton, this is the one. If you do not want to read a book which shouts from every page 'look at me and how clever I am at writing about things using 10 words when 5 is ample' then steer clear.

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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on 7 March 2008
James Gleick writes well and tells the story of Newton's life in a readable fashion, but this book didn't really add anything to what I already knew about the great man. It would be a good introduction if you don't already know about Newton's life and work, but not worth bothering if you do know something of the subject.

And I agree that the notes should have been included in the text!

Charlie T.
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