Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said, Let Newton be! And All was Light.

~Alexander Pope

Image result for isaac newton james gleickFor a long time I was curious about the life and works of Isaac Newton but couldn’t find a direct and readable book. That was until a friend on Twitter recommended this marvellous book by James Gleick.

Don’t get me wrong, this book does at times still demand your full attention as Newton and his peers debate the workings of the know universe. But, overall this is an excellent insight into a man who forever changed how we think about the world.

After reading several sports biographies lately, it appears that the curse of the genius also haunted Newton throughout his life. He spent much of it in isolation, determined to work and figure things out by himself. Amazingly, he often did not even bother to share some of his revolutionary findings with anyone else. He also had few close friends and took a vow of chastity that would last his whole life.

Solitude was an essential part of his genius.

Newton’s curious mind took him many places. He had a strong interest in alchemy and theology. He thought as much about the holy trinity as he did the workings of gravity but these opinions were kept secret until decades after his death such were their scandalous nature at the time. I loved how Newton’s interest in alchemy was portrayed as a useful exercise in open-mindedness and imagination.

Do you believe that the scientists would ever have arisen and become great if there had not beforehand been magicians, alchemists, astrologers and wizards, who thirsted and hungered after abscondite and forbidden powers?

What the author does best in this book is truly capture the exciting research and conflicting debates that occurred during Newton’s lifetime. Science was a much more vague term back then and ideas mixed freely with philosophy, religion and mathematics. Poor technology and basic equipment forced the great thinkers of that time to delve deep within their knowledge and imagination to produce scientific discoveries. Without hard evidence, the potential for opinion and debate was endless.

I really enjoyed reading this book as it really gave me a fantastic picture of Newton’s life. Yes he was one of the greatest minds who ever lived, but he was also a bit of a bully and a walking contradiction when it came to other aspects of his life. The best biographies shed light on all aspects of their subjects character and also capture the times they lived in. James Gleick does this with aplomb in this short read.

Notes:

  • I was glad to see the strong links with philosophy in this book as Newton’s famous law ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’ is a mantra that I would try to live by. Mindfulness suggests living life without always forcing the issue. If we push hard all of the time, life pushes back equally as hard.
  • Newton ended up serving the English crown as the Master of Coin and totally changed the standards and quality of coinage around the country. An interesting side note.
  • Newton was born on a farm surrounded everywhere by illiteracy and a poor life outlook beyond inheriting life on a farm. A teacher who taught a little bit more maths than he should have and an uncle who owned books (when they were very rare at the time) and paper (also rare) made the little differences required to inspire a future genius.