Gleick, James Isaac Newton

ISBN 13: 9780007163175

Isaac Newton

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9780007163175: Isaac Newton

From one of the best writers on science, a portrait of Isaac Newton – the man who changed our understanding of the universe, of science, and of faith.

‘It’s beautifully paced and very stylishly written: compact, atmospheric, elegant. It offers a brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination. It’s more revealing than a falling apple!’ Richard Holmes

Isaac Newton was the chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion; he effectively discovered gravity; he salvaged the terms ‘time’, ‘space’, ‘motion’ and ‘place’ from the haze of everyday language, standardized them and married them, each to the other, constructing an edifice that made knowledge a thing of substance: quantative and exact. Creation, Newton demonstrated, unfolds from simple rules, patterns iterated over unlimited distances.

What Newton learned remains the essence of what we know. Newton’s laws are our laws. When we speak of momentum, of forces and masses, we are seeing the world as Newtonians. When we seek mathematical laws for economic cycles and human behaviour, we stand on Newton’s shoulders. Our very deeming the universe as solvable is his legacy.

This was the achievement of a reclusive professor, recondite theologian and fervent alchemist. A man who feared the light of exposure, shrank from controversy and seldom published his work. In his daily life he emulated the complex secrecy in which he saw the riddles of the universe encoded. His vision of nature was of its time; he never purged occult, hidden, mystical qualities. But he pushed open a door that led to a new universe.

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Review:

It is a brave writer who tackles a biography of the world famous pioneer mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton and James Gleick has acquitted himself superbly well in his new book Isaac Newton. Accolades to Newton were piling up even during his early lifetime in the 17th century when such fame was usually confined to royalty, popes and archbishops and certainly not to ordinary mortals born in 1642 of yeomen stock in deepest rural England. According to Gleick, Newton was the first person whose attainment "lay in the realm of the mind" to have a state funeral and be buried in Westminster Abbey. A Latin inscription proclaimed his "strength of mind almost divine" with "mathematical principles peculiarly his own" and declared that "mortals rejoice that there has existed so great an ornament of the human race"--not bad for a farm boy from Lincolnshire.

Sensibly, Gleick, a well-known American science writer and author of the acclaimed Chaos, focuses a great deal on how such a transformation could happen to anyone with such humble beginnings at that time in British history. There is no doubt Newton's innate talent and genius but he was also lucky in that he had excellent schooling and through the intervention of a relative he was able to go to the University of Cambridge and went on to stay there most of his professional life. His mother supplied him with "a chamber pot; a notebook of 140 blank pages... a quart bottle and ink to fill it, candles for many long nights, and a lock for his desk". Try sending your child to university so equipped today.

Of course the critical achievements of Newton's life were in his scientific achievements and here is the real problem: how to explain them for the general reader when even academic mathematicians today find much of the detail of Newton's work hard to comprehend. This is largely because Newton did not have today's familiar technical language or standard units of measurement available to him; he really was exploring terra incognita and feeling his way. But this is exactly what Gleick manages to get over so well and there is so much more. Aside from it being an eminently accessible biography, illustrations, extensive notes, bibliography and index make this an invaluable source for anyone who wants to enter the wonderful and arcane world of Sir Isaac Newton. --Douglas Palmer

Review:

'The book has the magic of a wonderful laboratory experiment...A masterpiece of clarity - so difficult to write, so easy to read.'
Michael Holroyd

'A fresh and brilliant portrait of his personality and life, the people who mattered to him, the influences which played on him, and the contexts of his achievements.'
Oliver Sacks

'After reading Jim Gleick's beautifully written and intimate portrait of Newton, I felt as is I'd spent an evening by the fire with that complex and troubled genius.'
Alan Lightman

'It's beautifully paced and very stylishly written: compact, atmospheric, elegant. It offers a brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination' Richard Holmes --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Gleick, James
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