Saturday, 24 March 2007

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

If you want to understand Newton’s contribution to science and human progress, I would highly recommend this relatively short book (under 200 pages, but with an extra 80 pages of notes and references) – though I am not acquainted in detail with any other book on Newton. This is the kind of concentrated biography I like to read, not bloated, obsessively-detailed tomes.

This book is written in a clear and direct way, without being patronising or simplistic. It is a masterpiece of brevity and explication, but pausing to describe characters and the surrounding history and locations with almost poetic impact. One comes away from the book dazzled by Newton’s genius and innumerable achievements, and puzzled by the mystery of how he rose above being the neglected son of an illiterate Lincolnshire farm worker. Nature or nurture or freak?

It is impossible to sum up his achievement. Simply I allude to these I can remember:
a) inventing infinitesimal calculus;
b) establishing laws of motion;
c) writing a comprehensive description of gravity that enables us to predict the movements of planets, comets, tides and many practical aspects of the physical world;
d) separating physics from metaphysics, and so laying a key foundation stone of modern rational science;
e) analysing light and inventing instruments to study and use it;
f) reforming the currency;
g) even his odd pursuit of alchemy engendered many techniques and discoveries in chemistry and biology that have advanced science.

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