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Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton - James Gleick Perhaps I'm predisposed, keeping figures like Einstein and Feynman in mind, to the idea that great minds are inherently liberal. Not in politics necessarily, but in personality. It's hard to imagine someone of the intellectual stature of the inventor of the calculus and modern mechanics not being magnanimous, generous, giving and wanting to share his success with the world; being encouraging to fellows pursuing difficult questions and charitable in his political stances toward the accumulation and practice of new scientific knowledge. Gleick's cutting biography of Newton has disabused me of this notion.

Revealed through Mr. Newton's own personal correspondence and notes comes to light a figure that is craven, withdrawn, and as petty and vindictive as he was absolutely, stunningly, incomprehensibly brilliant. His mind and his achievements put into perspective what we might call "genius" by modern standards and force us to see how short that term falls. Around his work is built the edifice of modern science, a three hundred year quest formulated and enabled by the "tools" Newton created mostly in seclusion during the plague years 1665-1666 from his family home in Woolsthorpe. A more brooding significant historical figure can hardly be imagined, except perhaps for some of the later histories and accounts of the life of Lincoln.

I'd read some spurious anecdotes about Newton's proclivities form other historians of science, mainly Bill Bryson in his Brief History of Nearly Everything that created some cracks in the lustrous portrait we've painted of the legend since the time of his death, but Gleick's account delves much further to reveal just how unstable and truly friendless Newton was. Not that he was without admirers, though perhaps he accumulated those in far greater numbers after he was dead and not around to harangue, cajole, manipulate and condescend to them any more. He spent thirty-five years at Cambridge, most of them as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and in the entire time there, produced not a single friend. He was introspective and fearful of the judgment of others to the point of hysteria at times, and his writings, painstakingly collected and organized by Gleick reveal it.

Gleick is a phenomenal historian of science in that he is perfectly comfortable with the ideas he is trying to convey as well as the historical impact of the ideas themselves. His prose fluctuates from the intimidatingly terse, in a Cormac McCarthy style of recounting, to the lofty and eloquent, elevating the figures of his narrative and their achievements to awe-inspring status. It's at once revelatory and myth-making - a balance of the real and pragmatic and the idyllic and I like it a lot. That being said, I think that the book's narrative also fluctuates between really captivating anecdotes and analysis to pages of quotations from Newton or his contemporaries that attempt to let them tell the story themselves with little analysis in between on the historical import of such events or happenings.

Having read The Information first, I can clearly see this book as a period of gestation for those later themes and ideas, particularly the role that information and it's effective communication was going to have on the technological and scientific developments that were to come. Of particular interest to Gleick again in this work is symbology - the connection between words, symbols and ideas and the literal things they represent. It's difficult to imagine talking about things like Newton's laws of mechanics without the proper terminology, which he had to invent, or re-appropriate from their common usage. Words like force, mass, gravity, all had to be redefined to fit into a new paradigm of motion broken free from the millennia long grip of Aristotelean philosophy. But whereas The Information had a unifying theme, this book does not. Granted, it is biography, the objective of which is to tell a life story. Perhaps it's a wonderful conceit that Gleick avoids making judgments on Newton and lets the man speak for himself across the centuries, but at the same time, I was hoping for more. What do we make of Newton? What place does he hold in history? Is he a fundamental figure that defines the beginning of the modern era in reason, science and mathematics? Was he the last of a line of animists who believed in magic and superstition (he was a devoted and secretive alchemist most of his life as well)? Was he a bridge between? The reader is left free to interpret his life on its own, but as such it feels more like an encyclopedic entry, or a tome of primary source material than an historical analysis.

Think this one is about three and a half stars for me, but I'll choose to be conservative and round down. I guess that makes it 3.4999. Still, a great book if all you know about Newton is what your math or physics teacher told you about in passing and the amount of work put in to the research for this book is no laughing matter at all. Gleick's bibliography and notes run almost seventy pages. He knows his stuff and he knows how to organize it and he's definitely cemented himself in my opinion is the finest science historian and commentator of the present era, a true successor to people like Thomas Khun.