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Isaac Newton by James Gleick | Review

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  • Trusha Patel


Isaac Newton by James Gleick


Isaac Newton was the most famous scientist of his generation and one of the most recognizable physicists of all time. He accomplished amazing feats; he “pushed open a door that led to a new universe” (8). Some of his major achievements include the application of the law of gravity to the motion of planets, the path of comets, and the influence of the moon on ocean tides. Gleick’s biography attempts to clearly portray for the reader the entirety of Newton’s life – his successes, his shortcomings, his obsession with both science and the non-scientific, and his good as well as bad mixture of qualities. Gleick successfully presents Newton's life about as well as one could conceive it being presented in 191 pages.

One of Gleick’s greatest successes is his emphasis on Newton’s true characteristics. Students are taught that Newton was some sagacious man who believed in the welfare of humanity. Gleick, on the other hand, portrays Newton as how he thought Newton truly was: solitary, selfish, and paranoid even though he was extremely brilliant. The author states, “Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness…and yet discovered more the of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after” (3). These insightful descriptions of Newton’s state of mind widen the reader’s perspective on his life. They make the reader think of Newton beyond his scientific thoughts.

Gleick describes Newton’s scientific and non-scientific pursuits. He specifically points out that Newton did not discover the entirety of motion with the falling of the apple. It took a long time with complex thinking and developments before Newton theorized gravitation. Newton had spent time learning about other concepts like optics as well.

The author also sheds light on Newton’s obsession with the occult alchemy as well as with his repudiation of Trinitarianism. Furthermore, Gleick mentions Newton’s participation in Parliament and his control of the British mint. These actions help the reader understand Newton’s motivations.

Gleick also does not refine the language from back in the day to make it modernized. Instead, he presents quotations in the original English from which they came. This becomes increasingly important when readers reach the section on the Principia because it would greatly connect to their physics studies if they were to read the original form of Newton’s laws and their implications. Gleick quotes, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself, and of its own nature…flows uniformly” (125). Gleick portrays Newton’s standardization of the term time. Through reading the seventeenth century language, science students become aware of the importance of precise language in physics.

Gleick’s biography provides a complete portrayal of Newton from his peculiarities to his perseverance. The reader can readily perceive the change that occurred after Newton’s renovation of science. Gleick tells the reader, “What Newton learned remains the essence of what we know…We are Newtonians” (6). Through this book, we learn the origin of Newton’s thoughts which led to such a revolution in scientific thought.

Biographical Analysis

Newton’s life was shaped significantly by the world he lived in, and this molded the science that was churned out of his brilliant mind. Newton was born in the Woolsthorpe farm in England. Newton’s mother was widowed when Newton was only three years old. She married the wealthy Barnabas Smith, who did not want any kids. Newton ended up being raised by his grandmother. He grew up to be a shy schoolboy; “he was small, lonely, and abandoned” (11). Newton’s solitude would later lead to his incredible theories of the natural world. As a young boy, Newton spent his time learning about the workings of sundials and the movement of the night sky, noting observations that would later lead to his theory of gravitation. When Newton’s step-father died, his mother Hannah returned and sent the ten-year-old Newton to another school.

In Newton’s new school, he was taught Latin and mathematics by Henry Stokes. He lived with the apothecary Clarke who furthered his scientific curiosity. All of these things along with his personal studies of light were inscribed in a notebook. Newton had learned the roots of scientific inquiry at an early age: he was classifying and analyzing at a very young age. When Newton was sixteen, his mother called him home to be a farmer, but he failed. As a result, Newton attended the prestigious University of Cambridge in Trinity College where he would later become famous. During his first three years at Cambridge, Newton was taught the standard curriculum but was fascinated with the more advanced science. All his spare time was spent reading from the modern philosophers. Even though he was a top student, Newton was reprimanded for religious negligence in a remarkably Anglican institution.

Newton studied the Aristotelian worldview in which a force was necessary to keep an object in motion. He absorbed himself in the Trinity College library and “found his way to new ideas and polemics: from the French philosopher René Descartes, and the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei” (25). Both philosophers defied Aristotle explicitly; Descartes proposed geometrical and mechanical philosophy, while Galileo claimed that all bodies are made of the same stuff, which is heavy, and therefore fall at the same rate.

In Newton’s second year, he started a new section about philosophical questions he had. The first was if atoms exist. Was matter continuous and infinitely divisible, or discontinuous and discrete? Is space finite or infinite? What is the nature of motion and light? Why do objects fall? From matter to motion, to light, to the structure of cosmos, Newton had ideas about everything. Newton concluded that force causes motion. He also occupied himself with the concepts sound, memory, magnetism, heat, and the tides.

In 1664, Newton learned about Euclid’s Elements, from Cambridge University’s first professor of mathematics, Isaac Barrow. Unfortunately, in 1665, the Great Plague that was ravaging Europe had come to Cambridge, forcing the university to close. Newton was sent home but he still constantly had his attention focused on mathematics. Gleick writes, “he computed obsessively… to conceive of infinite series and then learn to manipulate them was to transform the state of mathematics” (39). Newton formulated the Binomial theorem in the same year. It was a method to expand a sum to any power. Furthermore, Newton began to discover a method to determine the slope of a tangent line to a curve, which we call the “derivative.” Newton’s concern with all of this would become the foundation for calculus and physics. He chose not to publish, and decided to keep to himself.

In 1666, Newton was trying to figure out how the attractive power between masses would diminish, and he learned that it lessens with the square of the distance. He questioned the movement of celestial bodies, such as the moon and earth wondering why they proceeded in a circular path. He needed precise terminology with definite units to facilitate his hypotheses, but “Writing in English, he was constrained by the language at hand” (59). The imprecise language was not sufficient enough to describe motion. Newton also explored optics and experiment with prisms.

When the plague subsided in 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge. Newton and Barrow attacked the subject of cubic equations. He tried to sort all the curves into different groups. Barrow showed him a book by Nicholas Mercator called Logarithmotechnia. Mercator had a method of calculating logarithms from infinite series and this discovery shocked Newton. So Newton wrote a paper called “On Analysis by Infinite Series” and gave it to Barrow to post this to another Royal Society colleague. Although he wanted anonymity, his name was revealed. “It was the first transmission of Newton’s name south of Cambridge” (68). Even though Newton preferred solitude, people began to recognize his mathematical expertise. When Barrow retired, Newton took the position of the Lucasian Professor at the age of twenty-seven. Newton lectured his students on the mathematics of light refraction “with none of the romance or metaphor that usually ornamented the philosophy of light” (71). The invention of telescopes had spurred intense interest in the properties of light. He then realized that the common refracting telescopes were inferior to reflecting telescopes because the seven colors of light created glare, so he spent a lot of his time constructing a powerful reflecting telescope, which Barrow gave to the Royal Society after two years.

Soon after, Secretary Oldenburg urged Newton to let the Royal Society publish his findings on the reflecting telescope. He made Newton think foreigners might steal his ideas, so Newton became a member of the Royal Society. Newton wrote to Oldenburg that within three years, he would make a great philosophical discovery, and then he would formally join. His focus was optics at this time. He wrote to Oldenburg that white light was composed of seven colors as evidenced by the prism experiments. By now, Newton’s rivalry with Robert Hooke grew strong as Hooke proposed a wave theory of light, whereas Newton promoted a corpuscular theory. Not only Hooke, but also Huygens, “the great Dutch mathematician and astronomer, also favored the wave theory of light” (88). Newton became frustrated because he attempted to show that the particle nature of light followed from mathematics, whereas the others contended that this was wishful thinking on Newton’s part. Hooke and Newton lashed at each other, claiming that the other was guilty of plagiarism. Oldenburg was adding to his paranoia; he used the discoveries of foreigners such as Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz to make Newton reveal more and more of his secret studies, until Newton finally stopped all communication for two years.

Around 1675, Oldenburg died and Hooke became the secretary of the Royal Society. Newton’s fears grew. Newton had another disagreement with Hooke over the relationship between orbits and falling objects. They were explaining the planet’s motion and both had come to believe in a body’s inherent force. Hooke proposed an inverse square explanation for elliptical orbits, and Newton possessed the mathematical ability to explain this. At this Hooke, “acknowledged Newton’s superior powers” (121). In 1684, astronomer Edmond Halley posed the question to Newton of elliptical orbits implying an inverse square relationship between gravity and distance. Newton sent him what he had already finished, but to continue, Newton needed to standardize the definitions of space and time.

Such standardization led to Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The totality of Newton’s studies of motion was in three volumes, with the only assumption being a gravitational force that diminishes with the square of the distance. His famous three laws of motion were in Principia: that an object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by a net force, an object accelerates in the direction of that force, and if two bodies exert a force on one another, the forces are equal in magnitude, but opposite in direction.

In Newton’s later years, he attempted to calculate the position of the moon. He then became the member of Parliament as well as Warden of the British mint. Following Hooke’s death, Newton became the President of the Royal Society as well as published Opticks, a piece on his experiments with light. On March 20, 1727, Newton died of a stone in his bladder.

Newtonianism had profound influences on the world. His achievements revolutionized physics and mathematics and he has been recognized as an undisputed genius. Newton’s years of hard work resulted in a successfully description of this world. He played a major role in the advancement of the scientific community of his time and of today.

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