Isaac Newton was born in a stone farmhouse in 1642, fatherless and unwanted by his mother. When he died in London in 1727 he was so renowned he was given a state funeral—an unheard-of honor for a subject whose achievements were in the realm of the intellect. During the years he was an irascible presence at Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton imagined properties of nature and gave them names—mass, gravity, velocity—things our science now takes for granted. Inspired by Aristotle, spurred on by Galileo’s discoveries and the philosophy of Descartes, Newton grasped the intangible and dared to take its measure, a leap of the mind unparalleled in his generation.
James Gleick, the author of Chaos and Genius, and one of the most acclaimed science writers of his generation, brings the reader into Newton’s reclusive life and provides startlingly clear explanations of the concepts that changed forever our perception of bodies, rest, and motion—ideas so basic to the twenty-first century, it can truly be said: We are all Newtonians.
Gleick's most renowned writing falls into one of two categories: vivid character studies or broad syntheses of scientific trends. Here, he fuses the two genres with a biography of the man who was emblematic of a new scientific paradigm, but this short study falls a bit short on both counts. The author aims to "ground this book as wholly as possible in its time; in the texts," and his narrative relies heavily on direct quotations from Newton's papers, extensively documented with more than 60 pages of notes. While his attention to historical detail is impressive, Gleick's narrative aims somewhere between academic and popular history, and his take on Newton feels a bit at arms-length, only matching the vibrancy of his Feynman biography at moments (particularly when describing Newton's disputes with such competitors as Robert Hooke or Leibniz). As might be expected, Gleick's descriptions of Newton's scientific breakthroughs are clear and engaging, and his book is strongest when discussing the shift to a mathematical view of the world that Newton championed. In the end, this is a perfectly serviceable overview of Newton's life and work, and will bring this chapter in the history of science to a broader audience, but it lacks the depth one hopes for from a writer of Gleick's abilities.