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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.
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VINE VOICEon 1 October 2000
Approaching this subject with a preconception of Newton on a pedestal as a demi-god, I felt both let-down and uplifted...
Let-down by Newton, because the book gives such an insight into the devious, underhand methods he used and how he would ride rough-shod over anyone in the way of his ideas.... Also, I fail to understand how such an intelligent man could swallow all the Alchemical drivel of the time - thousands of years of experimentation and still nobody discovered the Philosopher's Stone... that should have rung a warning bell!
Uplifted, because Mr White never lets you become bogged-down in the details of the subject - he injects another perspective at the right moment, letting you see that our 'demi-god' is as fallible as the rest of us. Also enlightening was the fact that Newton was 'in charge' of the Royal Mint at its most crucial point in history.... without his intervention, the British economy could have slid into irrecoverable bankruptcy.
Early on we get a glimpse of Newton's leanings (both emotionally and experimentally) and this is elaborated on to give a rounded profile of the man. Given all the pies he had a finger in; the challenges he set himself; and the physical and emotional deprivations he went through, it's surprising that he didn't end up totally insane. We see him on the brink of it, throwing all his principles out of the window, back-stabbing his 'colleagues' and alienating himself by his strange behaviour.
A damned good read.
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on 11 June 2006
I've always been interested in how magic and alchemy was perceived and practised in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and was slightly weary of ordering this biography, terrified of the potential countless incomprehensible equations inside the book - luckily for me, there were none, and even the scientific aspects of gravity weren't given much coverage. So if, like me, you're interested in Newton's life, rather than his theories and what they all mean, you will certainly enjoy this biography. It focuses more on his time at Cambridge and his relationships with various people rather than dwelling on the physics, so for someone who doesn't really "get" the technical side of things, this was truly a breeze :) 4 stars instead of 5 because I thought more space would be given to Newton as alchemist, as the title suggests, but a lot of the 'sorcery' was simply in passing.
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on 5 May 2013
The biography gives an entertaining and informative account of Newton's life through the lens of his life long obsession with alchemy and his deeply held Arian religious beliefs. The author makes a lucid case that it was these two passions (however misguided), along with Newton's thirst for knowledge, that drove Newton to his scientific discoveries.

The book is not overly scientific. It does not go into the mathematics or describe any of Newton's theories in great detail. Depending on your view point this may be a strength or a weakness, but it does make the biography easily accessible to readers who do not have a scientific background.

The biography also paints a lesser known side of Newton - namely Newton the civil servant. As warden and then master of the Royal Mint the biography gives an entertaining account of Newton as he tries to restructure the Royal Mint and increase efficiency, while simultaneously bringing to justice currency counterfeiters with almost a religious zeal.

However, I found the most enjoyable sections of the biography to be the accounts of Newton's feuds with other well known historical figures of the time - namely: Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed (First Astronomer Royal), and Gottfried Leibniz. Most enjoyable was his battle with Leibniz, and the battle for the title of "discoverer of Calculus". This gave an insight into the dark side of Newton and his ruthlessness when dealing with adversaries.

Overall a great read and highly recommended but personally I would of liked to of seen a little more scientific detail (in particular at least a mention of the second most famous equation in all of physics - F = ma).
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on 24 May 2003
This is one of the most interesting biographies I've read. As well as outlining Isaac Newton's outstanding contributions to science, the book also give a revealing insight into the character of Isaac Newton, which can only be described as eye-opening!! On the down side, the book tends to dwell on the negative aspects of Newton's character, rather than presenting a well rounded account of what he may have been like, but it is still a good read for anyone interested in science and its history.
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on 14 September 2013
The original idea of this book (so it claims) is that Newton's success in Mathematics and Mechanics was BECAUSE of his Alchemical researches. The thesis is not made. There is no argument worth anything that this is the case.
That Newton spent time on alchemy throughout his years at Cambridge and thereafter, is no argument that it played any part in his science. It is like saying: Prof Jones's skill as a physicist was dependent upon his evenings in the local inn where he played darts or on his entertaining dinner parties for which he assembled a rich variety of recipes of his own creation. These are nonsense: just activities in which he diverted himself in efforts to get away from the labour of his life ['like a small boy by the seashore now finding some more beautiful pebble than my companions.....]
Here, on p221, White wrote: 'Newton saw the power of attraction and repulsion at the bottom of the alchemist's crucible as well as in the movements of the two, establishing that all matter attracts other matter. For Newton and humankind, The Principia was the fabled elixir, the alchemist's gold, the philosopher's stone.' That is his case.
He does refer the reader to Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs book on 'The Role of Alchemy in Newton's Thought' but gives not a shred of evidence from it and has nothing to say about any argument to this purpose by her and even admits on the same page that scholars are divided on the very idea.
Also, p161: "His deep immersion in alchemical experiment and the ancient roots of theology must now have influenced his thinking towards a broader view of the universe, offering him possibilities beyond the realm of orthodox teaching and accepted philosophy." Why must it? White does not say.
In Dobbs, p232, we find, however: 'Any body can be transformed into another, of whatever kind, and all the intermediate degrees of qualities can be induced in it.' [from Koyre's translation of Newton's Regulandi Philosophandi] and concludes that Newton failed to penetrate the mysteries of transmutation because the eventual solution provided in the 20th century was impossible 3 centuries before. Even so, there is no sign therein of any connexion between N's mechanics growing out of his alchemy. So even Dobbs has no case.
Again, on p226 White says: 'the basis upon which his (N's) ideas of subatomic forces operated was too obviously derived from alchemy and the hermetic tradition- he could not risk exposing his sources.' Not so. It is not at all obvious. That admitting to alchemical practises might have been dangerous (though why this should be when there was no science of chemistry, no science of any kind, indeed, worthy of the name (except Galileo's and he got into trouble for his) and everybody, including big shots like Robert Boyle were at it), does not show that these were seminal in the development of N's mechanical science.
White does not believe that Newton's insight about gravity arose on noticing the fall of an apple from a tree. He does not believe N's own story. Why ever not? Whom should he believe, then? Who but the originator of an insight can say whence it came?
But there are interesting things herein. That N was a gentleman by birth and well off by the standards of the time, at least after his fellowship at Trinity and far more after his mother's death [she had kept him on short commons in the early days].
Kepler's mother was accused of witchcraft in 1615, tortured and acquitted p77.
The style of the prose, especially early on, is not endearing.
But this is a worthwhile read though not in the same league as those by Manuel, Westfall, Christiansen et al who had access to all the papers in the sixties and seventies.
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on 11 February 2003
Although I can not put a finger on any single fault, I found this book a very bland biography of Newton and for me added nothing to what I already knew of the great man (which wasn't much more than you can find in A-level physics texts). In the title I was expecting a little more on the alchemical persuits of Newton, however, little is really added to his life story that has not already been published many times elsewhere in a more erudite and concise form. There is nothing particularly wrong with the writing, although it is a little long winded in places, but it just didn’t engage me in a way I expected the biography of whom I personally rate as the greatest scientist in history.
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VINE VOICEon 31 December 2003
I've read other biographies of Sir Isaac Newton, and this is the best. As the title suggests, there is an emphasis on his interest in Alchemy.
I worried (unnecessarily as it turned out) that other aspects of his life would be neglected. But his time at the Royal Mint, and his clashes with Huygens, Hooke, Leibniz etc are well covered.
The only disappointment for some readers might be that this is not an overtly scientific/mathematical biography - there are no formulae : so if you want to know that little more detail about Newton's discoveries, such as the Laws of Motion, Laws of Gravity, and Differential Calculus, you won't see any of that in here. In fact the word 'Gravity' (perhaps his most famous discovery) doesn’t even appear in the Index (although the 'Apple' does).
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on 1 October 2014
I highly recommend this biography as a thorough but entertaining insight into Newton's work and his life. Although cram full of detail it is written in a thoroughly engaging manner, succeeding in making this detailed biography a real page-turner. In addition to giving wonderful background on the developments of Newton's key contributions to science, this book also gives an insight into Newton's darker side including his work on alchemy and his obsession with unravelling hidden messages and prophecies in The Bible and other religious texts. Well worth reading.
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on 28 January 2002
This is a well-written but rather strange book. There is a lot of alchemical detail, with frequent statements that in some way alchemy was what guided Newton's work in physics - but the evidence for the link is not given. For instance, it is said that Newton made up the apple story and that the idea of central gravity was suggested by the shape of a star-like crystal he grew. But this is just the author's unsupported statement - no real evidence is given that the apple story is false or that the crystal gave Newton the idea.
Also, I was disappointed that the book was not more scientific - and there is a fundamental error in the author's statement that a 'perfect' lens would give no aberration: in fact to avoid aberration, special coatings are needed - a perfect shape will not solve the problem. In fact, the whole reason Newton turned his back on refracting telescopes was that he discovered that even a 'perfectly' shaped lens would NOT solve the problem.
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