April 21st 2009

Isaac Newton. James Gleick.

Isaac Newton in old age in 1712. Portrait by S...
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Isaac Newton. James Gleick. 2003. ISBN 1400032954. At various times of his life Newton was a reclusive, paranoid, antisocial cleric/scholar at Cambridge who as he rose in esteem,  grew increasingly ambitious, autocratic and demagogic.  It seems he travelled very little, probably never saw the sea , yet set down the answers to tides and the creation of tide tables.

The trials of an author,  trying to recapture the life of persons who lived at that time in what was a very rural England with only had one large city London,  can only be imagined.  Records were scant to nonexistent, most of the population was illiterate, books were published rarely and read by few.  The language was Old English yet most of what Newton discovered required new words to describe it.

Lesson learned for me was the extent that Newton explored alchemy (which became very useful when he was put in charge of the Royal Mint) .  He struggled to reconcile his theological research with the preachings of the day, having decided that the “Holy Trinity”  was just not based on the ancient writings he had translated and that the Church had manufactured stories over the years. This was a real problem because at one time in order to remain at Cambridge he was supposed to be ordained as a priest.  Newton also hid the bulk of his findings away for many decades, refusing to publish them, yet railing against those who “rediscovered” the materials on their own and published them. Letters flew across the country, positions were taken, hatreds grew.  When Newton grew in esteem and power, he became a real tyrant in his positions against all others. It was pretty heady stuff in its day.

If you are a scientist or just  curious, this is a a useful book. Not an easy read, through no fault of the author. But it is short.

Cover of "Isaac Newton"
Cover of Isaac Newton
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