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 prizewinning
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.
