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An excellent biography of one of our greatest scientists, providing interesting insights into his character
on 21 January 2014
In my opinion, Michael White has written an excellent, well researched biography of one of our greatest scientists. He explains in detail how Isaac Newton had a troubled childhood and how this may have adversely affected his personality in later life, leading him to be very secretive, trusting few people and disliking criticism, and resulting in him being reticent to publish his theories. His Principia, for example, was twenty years in the making and when it was published it was in Latin and deliberately written in a way to ensure very few people would be able to understand it.
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.