Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Rating: 3 ½ Stars

For many children, introduction to Isaac Newton, and by extension physics, begins with the famous story of the apple. That story may not be completely myth, but certainly it was exaggerated. There does not seem to be an isolated ‘Eureka’ moment leading to Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravitation. It was borne out after years of intense observation, contemplation, and experimenting.

Isaac Newton was born in 1642, the son of an illiterate farmer. At an early age, the fatherless boy was abandoned to his grand-mother’s care when his mother remarried. He grew up a lonely, neglected child. Having shown no aptitude for farming, he entered Cambridge University at the age of nineteen, eventually becoming a Professor of Mathematics and earning a Fellowship. He later left his teaching job when he was, by royal appointment, made Warden of the Mint in 1696. He fulfilled his duties zealously, bringing his mathematical exactitude to the job at hand, and earned honor and wealth in this field as he did in the scientific one. He died in 1727, a wealthy, famous recluse, who had never married, and had allegedly been celibate all his life.

There are some people who have fascinating personal lives; others who choose to make what should be private, public. Newton remains to the end of the book, complex and unknowable - it’s hard to take the measure of the man who invented calculus and enabled the prediction of Halley’s Comet. His influence is felt in the very words that form the rudiments of physics: force, mass, action, reaction, momentum, gravity. It was only with Newton that these words entered the lexicon as scientific concepts. He was an obsessive thinker who asked himself endless questions about the nature of the physical world, then attempted to work out the solutions for himself, though he did keenly study the notes of both predecessors and contemporaries.

 In 1703, he was nominated President of the Royal Society of London, an organization dedicated to the promotion of scientific knowledge. In his new position he encouraged experiments in light, heat and chemistry; and championed early research into electricity. If he shared meagerly from his vast store of knowledge, part of it seems to stem from his inborn secrecy, and part from his innate caution in publishing his theories; in his words, “to avoid being engaged in disputes.” He grew enraged at those he perceived as envious pretenders.

With Newton, for the first time perhaps in English history, a man of science became a national hero. The poet, Alexander Pope eulogized him thus:

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,
God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light.”

Yet, during his lifetime and after, he had his detractors, and not just among fellow scientists. Some less admiring poets were Keats, Shelley and Blake, who seemed to loathe him for reasons both diverse and obscure – for the loss of mystery in the universe, for the diminishing of faith, and for England’s increasing industrialization. That’s a lot of blame to lay at one man’s door. Genius lives for its own reasons. Oddly though, Newton didn’t appear to have an overly inflated opinion of himself,

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

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