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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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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 14 July 2016
I hardly ever write reviews of anything, but I want to help people avoid wasting money on this. The book is (mercifully) short, gave me no insight into Newton. No facts about his life apart from a few tedious arguments with Hooke. You find out more in 10 minutes on Wikipedia than in 10 hours wading through this boring book.
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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 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.

Olly Buxton
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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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At this time of the year, I select a few books about diverse subjects and re-read them with the hope that new insights will occur that I missed previously. That is certainly true of this book (first published in 2003 when I last read it) and Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine (1997). Dozens of other reviewers have already covered most of the strengths and pleasures of James Gleick's book about Isaac Newton (1642-1727), one that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I prefer to cite four of several dozen passages that caught my eye. They are representative of the thrust and flavor of Gleick's thinking and writing.

"No one understands the mental faculty we call mathematical intuition+; much less, genius. People's brains do not differ much, from one to the next, but numerical facility seems rarer, more special, than other talents. It has a threshold quality. In no other intellectual realm does the genius find so much common ground with the idiot savant. A mind turning inward from the world can see numbers as lustrous creatures; can find other in them, and magic; can know numbers as if personally." (Page 38)

The author of Micrographia (published in 1665) was Robert Hooke, "a brilliant and ambitious man seven years Newton's senior, who wielded the microscope just as Galileo had the telescope. These were the instruments that penetrated the barrier of scale and opened a view into the countries of the very large and the very small. Wonders were revealed there. The old world -- the world of ordinary scales -- shrank into its place in a continuum, one order among many." (62)

John Locke (1632-1704) "had just completed a great work of his own, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), and saw the Principia [Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a three-volume explanation of his laws of motion and universal gravitation] as an exemplar of methodical knowledge. He did not pretend to follow the mathematics. They discussed theology -- Locke amazed at the depth of Newton's biblical knowledge -- and these paragons of rationality found themselves kindred spirits in the dangerous area of anti-Trinitarianism." (145)

"The Principia marked a fork in the road: thenceforth science and philosophy went separate ways. Newton had moved from the realm of metaphysics many questions about the nature of things -- about what exists -- and assigned them a new name, physics. 'This preparation being made,' he declared, 'we argue more safely.' And less safely, too: by mathematizing science, he made it possible for its facts and claims to be proved wrong." 184-185)

Two concluding points. First, I selected Pope's observation ("Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said 'Let Newton be' and all was light") for the title of this review because, in fact, Newton was neither the first nor the last to illuminate major realities in the natural world that had previously been ignored, misunderstood, or simply not recognized. That leads to a second point: It was a twelfth-century French Neo-Platonist philosopher, scholar, and administrator, Bernard of Chartres, and not Newton who first explained, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." However, countless others (including Albert Einstein) have since stood on Newton's shoulders for almost three centuries.
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This is a short bio of Newton that is emminently readable and explains his achievements in historical perspective. It does not go into excessive scientific detail, but explains the gist in a truly masterful popularization. I am sure that scientists will find the treatment too light, but for the general reader it is perfect in my view.

Newton essentially created a new kind of mathematics, which came to be known as calculus. It involved the use of infinities to describe certain shapes and so was a great break with previous mathematical assumptions. In what can only be called a work of genius, Newton then applied this mathematics to the motion of the planets, positing the force of gravity as the explanation for why it all held together. Newton also did fundamental experiments in optics, which reflected his remarkable ability to observe and record/descirbe what he saw in scientific language. Gleick also explores Newton's involvement in strange strains of mysticism, a remnant of the middle ages and unlike the Enlightenment with which he came to be associated.

On a personal level, Newton was a solitary man with no apparent romantic relationships. Gleick does not speculate on is sexuality and avoids other areas about which we cannot know. Late in life, he became rich as a controller of the currency for the Crown.

Warmly recommended. Gleick is a science writer of great talent.
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