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Show Your Math
By Gene Mirabelli

Isaac Newton
By James Gleick, Pantheon Books, 288 pages, $22.95

Isaac Newton, the greatest scientific thinker since Aristotle, was a very grumpy man. He spent the earlier part of his life in scholarly obscurity, first as an impoverished student and then as a professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. As a professor he gave few lectures, tantalized his fellow mathematicians with brilliant fragments and refused to publish. He displayed the social graces of a porcupine. During his later years, after the publication of his Principia, his fame grew; he became a more public man and there sprang up the myth of Newton as pure intellect, a mind free of ancient fallacies or superstitions.

Now James Gleick has sifted through a zillion words written by and about that unsociable man and put his findings into a beautifully compact little volume. Isaac Newton is not so much a biography of Newton as it is a study of his testy character and the turbulent times in which he lived. We don’t know a lot about Newton’s private life, and Gleick mercifully refuses to substitute speculation for fact. Isaac was born in a stone farmhouse on Christmas in 1642, his father already dead and buried. When the boy was 3, his mother married a rector from a nearby town, a wealthy man twice her age, who wanted her but not her son. Under the negotiated terms of the marriage, Newton’s mother left him to his grandmother’s care at the farmhouse and moved in with her new husband. Gleick leaves it to the reader to imagine any connection between this abandonment and Newton’s inability to form a warm attachment to anybody during his long, solitary and celibate life.

In popular history, Newton is the man who saw an apple fall from a tree and wondered if the force that pulled the apple also pulled the moon and kept it from flying off into space—hence, his theory of gravitation and his ability to predict the path of planets and cannonballs. Math students know him also as the inventor of calculus. Either achievement alone would earn Newton a place among the greatest figures of science, but he also investigated the baffling mysteries of light and color, wrote a pioneering work on optics and made the first reflecting telescope.

Gleick deftly sketches the intellectual milieu of the late 1600s, pointing out that we live so completely in the world Newton created that we have a hard time imagining what it was like before he came along. Newton struggled to invent and refine such concepts as mass, momentum and inertia while we take them for granted. Indeed, there was no word for the force that caused an apple to fall, so Newton took the word gravity—meaning serious or solemn or weighty—and refashioned it for his own use. There were no uniform units of distance or time (a day was as long as the sun shone), and Newton was in much the same fix as Galileo, whose work involved timing the velocity of falling bodies when there were no mechanical clocks.

Great men are rarely simple, and Gleick shows us the complexity of Newton’s character without dithering over its contradictions. Much of what we know about Newton’s intellectual life was hidden until the 20th century when unpublished papers began to turn up. Readers were stunned to discover that the man they had celebrated as pure intellect—the man whose thought was as logical as geometry—had written volumes of passionate polemics on biblical and theological points, and page upon page on his other secret obsession, alchemy.

Newton’s interest in alchemy or in the Holy Trinity may come as a surprise, but they aren’t flaws. On the other hand, his inability to admit intellectual debts (especially to those whose insights helped him most), his contemptuous secrecy about his discoveries, and his bitter argument with Leibnez—these are deficiencies of character. It was Newton’s silly secretiveness that led to his dispute Leibnez as to who had invented calculus first; each had created calculus independently, but Leibnez published first.

Kepler had shown that the path of a planet around the sun is not the godlike perfect circle he and everyone else had assumed, but an ellipse with the sun at one focus. Nobody could explain why this was so, nor could they explain Kepler’s other observations about planetary motion. In his Principia, Newton demonstrated that his laws of gravitation and motion predict precisely the orbits taken by the planets. Those same rules could predict the return of distant comets, the distorted shape of the Earth, the return of comets and the paths taken by a pair of colliding billiard balls. Nowadays we use calculus to figure planetary orbits, but rather than introduce and explain his own branch of mathematics in order to demonstrate the rightness of his laws for celestial mechanics, Newton brilliantly used the old familiar rules of geometry.

The author of a breathless book on chaos theory and a prize-winning biography of the maverick physicist Richard Feynman, James Gleick certainly knows science and mathematics. So it’s strange that he chose to write a book about Isaac Newton that scrupulously avoids presenting any physics or math. Surely the only reason we’re interested in that irritable genius who died 317 years ago is because of his physics and his calculus. Newton’s laws are elegant and his calculus is both astonishing and beautiful, but Gleick gives them only a glance. There are ways to present calculus that put its fundamental insights and lovely maneuvers within the reach of the general reader.

All right, nobody’s perfect. Gleick’s Isaac Newton is somewhat less than it could have been, but it’s a classic nonetheless.


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