Quarrelsome and quirky, a disheveled recluse who ate little, slept less, and yet had an iron constitution, Isaac Newton rose from a virtually illiterate family to become one of the towering intellects of science. Now, in this fast-paced, colorful biography, Gale E. Christianson paints an engaging portrait of Newton and the times in which he lived.
We follow Newton from his childhood in rural England to his student days at Cambridge, where he devoured the works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, and taught himself mathematics. There ensued two miraculous years at home in Woolsthorpe Manor, where he fled when plague threatened Cambridge, a remarkably fertile period when Newton formulated his theory of gravity, a new theory of light, and calculus--all by his twenty-fourth birthday. Christianson describes Newton's creation of the first working model of the reflecting telescope, which brought him to the attention of the Royal Society, and he illuminates the eighteen months of intense labor that resulted in his Principia, arguably the most important scientific work ever published. The book sheds light on Newton's later life as master of the mint in London, where he managed to convict and hang the arch criminal William Chaloner (a remarkable turn for a once reclusive scholar), and his presidency of the Royal Society, which he turned from a dilettante's club into an eminent scientific organization. Christianson also explores Newton's less savory side, including his long, bitter feud with Robert Hooke and the underhanded way that Newton established his priority in the invention of calculus and tarnished Liebniz's reputation.
Newton was an authentic genius with all too human faults. This book captures both sides of this truly extraordinary man.
Christianson has built a small empire of Newton biographies, including the full-length In the Presence of the Creator and the much briefer Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution. In fact, this volume is more or less identical to the briefer one, published by Oxford in 1996 as part of its young adult Portraits in Science series. The relatively simple prose betrays its origins, but the book itself gives a solid and accessible introduction to the life and work of Newton (1642 1727), from his early days at Cambridge to his time as a member of Parliament in the critical year of 1689, after King James II fled to France, and the political battles that surrounded Newton's later work as master of the mint. "Newton was a loner pure and simple, secure in the knowledge that he was without peers when it came to almost all matters cerebral," Christianson writes. This biography works best as a brief introduction for general readers; those familiar with the general history of science (or, for that matter, those who've read Neal Stephenson's vastly more nuanced if fictional portrayal of Newton in his Baroque Cycle) will find little that isn't familiar.