Book Review: Isaac Newton (Author: James Gleick)
I’m not sure why or how my interests became directed towards Isaac Newton – but they did and they are. Somehow I picked up, as if by accident, at least four volumes which by and large discuss Newton in one manner of another. One of these is James Gleick’s biography entitled simply Isaac Newton.
An attractive paperback book with the tide washing against the shore and Newton’s name written large in golden letters it weighs in at over 289 pages – but this is a bit deceptive. The actual biography covers 197 pages which are then followed on pp. 199-248 by endnotes and after that comes acknowledgements, an extensive bibliography, and a comprehensive index and some other lighter “bonus” material of relatively low worth.
The man (Isaac Newton) and his discoveries and times are fascinating – so it is impossible for a book about him to lack, to some extent, substantive content and interest…but I must admit, contrary to the glowing reviews found adorning this volume by various reviewers, I found the book overall to be disappointing. That said, I have not read a book better than this one on Newton – so for the time being it is the only recommendation I can make…though I hope in upcoming weeks and months to read the other volumes I have acquired and perhaps be able to offer better recommendations in the future.
Suffice it to say that Newton as an individual is well worth studying – and Gleick’s book provides one opportunity to do so – but that better opportunities may abound, yet unknown to me.
Why this criticism of Gleick’s work? It is evident that Gleick has spent ponderous amounts of time researching everything related to Newton and his times and it is not in substance that the work disappoints as much as it is in style and comprehensiveness. To be specific, here are my criticisms:
- The book appears to be a popular rather than scientific biography of Newton, yet its entry into scientific topics is not done in such a manner as is readily understandable by the lay individual (and here I am using myself as an example of this individual). One feels overwhelmed by the constant pace of scientific information presented and struggles to comprehend all that is being said.
- Again, along the popular lines, there is the issue of quotations. Gleick chose to use original spellings in providing quotations from various individuals – including Newton – and English has changed significantly over time…so much so that this adds (imho) unnecessary difficulty and complexity to the text. Highlighting the differences in spelling is interesting, but could have been provided with a few examples instead of comprehensive use in quotations and overall obfuscates the more important concepts and historical occurrences Gleick is recording.
- The narrative feels choppy – and I understand that at least parts of this come from the lack of reliable information regarding Newton (due to a number of contributing factors) – but Gleick leaves this choppiness present in the narrative, leaving us feeling as if large portions have been left out that he could have included if he wished to, rather than explaining that we simply do not know what happened in such and such an instance.
- Finally, I find the use of end-notes somewhat frustrating. I find footnotes much more friendly and useful and did not really approach the end-notes in this volume (at least to this point) due to the difficulty of navigating endnotes while reading a text.
All these negatives aside – I do not mean to lambast Gleick’s book. Gleick has accomplished something significant and I find that, at least for me, my understanding of concepts grew through simple repetition as I worked through the volume. There is so much about Newton that is simply fascinating – and much which Gleick teases out (while at the same time leaving so much unexplored!), let me share with you just a few of the choice ideas and quotes I noted in reading the book (my volume is heavily underlined and has notes in the margins throughout).
- “For since we are finite, it would be absurd for us to determine anything concerning the infinite; for this would be to attempt to limit it and grasp it. So we shall not bother to reply to those who ask if half an infinite line would itself be infinite, or whether an infinite number is odd or even, and so on. It seems that nobody has any business to think about such matters unless he regards his own mind as infinite.” – Descarte, pg. 40.
- “We are among infinities and indivisibles, the former incomprehensible to our understanding by reason of their largeness, and the latter by their smallness.” – Galileo, pg. 42.
- “Far away across the country multitudes were dying in fire and plague. Numerologists had warned that 1666 would be the Year of the Beast. Most of London lay in black ruins: fire had begun in a bakery, spread in the dry wind across thatch-roofed houses, and blazed out of control for four days and nights.” – pg. 47.
- Nicolaus Copernicus was an astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer. – pg. 50.
- “He [Isaac Newton] was looking inward as well as outward. Introspection told him that his imagination could see things as they really were. ‘Phantasie is helped,’ he noted, ‘by good aire fasting moderate wine.’ But it is also ‘spoiled by drunkenesse, Gluttony, too much study’. He added: from too much study, and from extreme passion, ‘cometh madnesse’.” – pg. 61.
- The Royal Society and the scientific revolution in may ways are similar to much that we see in the current time revolving around information technology, the internet, and the singularity. – My observations, based in part on pg. 74.
- “A German Jesuit, Athanasisu Kircher, revealed secrets of the subterranean world: for example, that the ocean waters continually pour into the northern pole, run through the bowels of the earth, and regurgitate at the southern pole.” – pg. 78 (no, we don’t believe that anymore).
- “By Newton’s thirties his hair was already grey, falling to his shoulders and usually uncombed…He stayed in his chamber for days at a time, careless of meals, working by candlelight. He was scarcely less isolated when he dined in the hall. The fellows of Trinity College learned to leave him undisturbed at table and to step around diagrams he scratched with his stick in the gravel of the walkways. They saw him silent and alienated, with shoes down at hell and stockings untied. He feared disease – plague and pox – and treated himself pre-emptively by drinking a self-made elixir of turpentine, rosewater, olive oil, beeswax and sack. In fact he was poisoning himself, slowly, by handling mercury.” – pg. 101.
- “Newton was a mechanist and a mathematician to his core, but he could not believe in a nature without spirit. A purely mechanical theory of the world’s profusion of elements and textures — and for their transformations, from one substance to another — lay too far beyond reach.” – 102.
- “Like other alchemists, he conceived of mercury not just as an element but as a state or principle inherent in every metal. He spoke of the ‘mercury’ of gold.” – 103.
- “Astronomers still doubled as astrologers; Kepler and Galileo had trafficked in horoscopes.” – pg. 106.
- Newton wrote privately about many theological matters and quite extensively. He struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity and according to Gleick “denied the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Ghost.” – pg. 109.
- “He set down a catalogue of fifteen rules of interpretation and seventy figures of prophecy…He calculated and then recalculated the time of the Second Coming, which he understood to be the restoration of primitive uncorrupted Christianity.” – pg. 110.
- “In theology as in alchemy, he felt himself to be questing for ancient truths that had been perverted in the dark history of the past centuries. Knowledge had been lost, veiled in secret copies to hide it from the vulgar, distorted by blasphemers, priests and kings.” – pg. 113.
- “Newton plumbed both nature and history to find out God’s plan. He rarely attended church.” – pg. 115.
- “Philosophy is such an impertinently litigious Lady that a man had as good be engaged in Law suits as have to do with her. I found it so formerly & now I no sooner come near her again but she gives me warning.” – Isaac Newton, pg. 131.
- “He [Newton] scoured Greek texts for clues to his belief that the ancients had known gravity and even the inverse-square law.” – pp. 151-52.
- “An active interventionist, God must organise the universe and the solar system: otherwise substance would be evenly diffused through infinite space or gathered together in one great mass. Surely God’s hand could be seen in the division between dark matter, like the planets, and shining matter, like the sin.” – Gleick communicating the thought of Newton, pg. 152.
- “Sexual feelings, too, troubled Newton’s nights. He had long since embraced celibacy.” – pg. 153.
- “The way to chastity is not to struggle directly with incontinent thoughts but to avert the thoughts by some imployment, or by reading, or meditating on other things…” – Newton, pg. 153.
- “The Analysis of the Ancients is more simple more ingenious & more fit for a Geometer than the Algebra of the Moderns.” – Newton, pg. 155.
- “With few exceptions his treatises remained in the purgatory of his private papers.” pg. 156.
- “In Berlin, Leibniz told the Queen of Prussia that in mathematics there was all previous history, from the beginning of the world, and then there was Newton; and that Newton’s was the better half.” – pg. 161.
- “Newton was seen now was the curator of a hoard of knowledge, its extent unknown. Wallis told Newton he owed to the public his hypothesis of light and colour, which Wallis knew he had suppressed for more than thirty years, and much more – a full optical treatise.” – pg. 167.
- “A slightly naughty thought can come to one’s mind here. The tools that he [Newton] gave us stand at the root of so much that goes on now….We [contemporary scientists] may not be doing a lot more than following in his footsteps. We may still be so much under the impression of the particular turn he took…we cannot get it out of our system.” – Hermann Bondi, pg. 193.
- “What Newton learned entered the marrow of what we know without knowing how we know it.” – pg. 193.
- “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” – John Maynard Keynes, pg. 194.
- Newton did extensive historical research as well and “declared the ancient kingdoms to be hundreds of years younger than generally supposed.” – pp. 194-5.
Whenever I approach a work like Gleick’s on Newton I find myself driven to a few (to me) self-evident truths:
- Every work is about so much more than the topic it addresses, the indirect implications of the work are oftentimes more significant than the core content of the work. Thus, when we read a biography of Newton we learn lessons not just about science but about relationships (of which Newton had few and poor), of humility (as even the greatest minds struggle to understand what God hath wrought), of insanity (for there is more than a touch of it in Newton’s genius).
- One item that stands out particularly (to me) from Gleick’s biography is the rapid advancement in science which occurred during this time and the seeming looming presence of paradise via technological innovation. I am, as many others with a technical or scientific bent, tempted to find such hopes again in present times – yet what history demonstrates is that technology without change in the core of humanity will not bring about paradise. That is, humanity will not find paradise without the removal of our brokenness (sin nature).
- Another somewhat similar observation has to do with the necessity of humility in our observations. Newton was at odds with some of the greatest scientists of his times – Hook and Leibniz to name just two. Galileo made a mockery of Kepler, and so on. Newton himself spent tremendous amounts of time studying alchemy (the process of turning a material into gold), something which is fairly despised by modern science.
- Finally, I see in the life of Newton the passion of genius, but also the loss of relationship. I ponder in my own life the opportunities for advancement and knowledge and understanding as opposed to the opportunities for compassion and relationship. Not that these two are opposed – I think they are meant to operate side by side rather than as opposites, but the extremes of one or the other may undermine the presence of the other.