Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Book 3: Newton

Isaac Newton by James Gleick
Pbk, Vintage, New York, 2004

I picked up this book to put a spine through the pieces of the man I knew from other histories: Newton the jealous, blasting his colleagues Hooke and Leibniz; Newton the minter, recoining Britain's gold and silver currency; Newton the theologian, obsessively calculating the exact dimensions of the second temple; and Newton the miraculous, inventing calculus and physics in a summer. To this spectral portrait I can now add the alchemist, the hermit, the bully, the wealthy knight, and the poor farm-boy. This is not a substantial nor a scholarly book, but Isaac Newton gave me a reasonable sense of his character and a view of his solitary, complex genius.

Newton must have had an angel. Born in obscurity and fatherless, Newton was given a grammar-school education to prepare him to head up the family farm. But while he flourished as a student, he did not as a farmer: while he experimented with model waterwheels his swine ran amok on his neighbours’ land. His relatives determined that he was fit only for a career in the church and sent him to Cambridge.

At Trinity College he was a top student, capturing the attention of his mathematics professor, Isaac Barrow. When the plague of 1665 closed England’s universities, Newton returned to the farm. Alone, shut up in his room, he had his annus mirabilis: as an undergrad he conducted this famous dual prism experiments, investigated gravitation, and invented the calculus of change. And, in what would become characteristic of Newton, upon his return to Cambridge he told no one of any of his discoveries.

Newton rises: in short order he was elected a fellow if Trinity, made his debut with a short paper to the Royal Society on infitesimals, and became the Lucasian professor of mathematics. But his prominence did not make him a public man. A worse teacher than Kepler, he early on gave up delivering lectures, and with an audacity that would be unthinkable in a professor today, he ignored all of his duties to retreat into his studies. He built a hut against the walls of the college to conduct alchemical experiments and combed the libraries for his biblical research. And, save for a few papers on optics, and a sour running battle with Robert Hooke at the Royal Society, Newton publishes nothing of substance for nearly twenty years, until his Principa of 1686. But the Principa Mathematica, in which Newton lays out his laws of motion and gravatation, is an instant hit.

The post-Principa Newton is a man of fame and influence: he forsakes his Cambridge cell for London and the Mint, becomes the stern president of the Royal Society on his rival Hooke’s demise, and is Knighted. He also enters into the famous, fierce and ugly priority dispute with the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the invention of calculus. This battle is the inevitable product of Newton’s secrecy with his methods. Even at this late point in his career he had not shared his discovery of calculus. But the priority dispute was the product of a profound shortsightedness on both Newton’s and Leibniz’s sides. Each man knew full well the other invented calculus independently (with Newton creating the inferior notation), but both allowed the stain to spread. The battle cramped of European mathematics and science for decades and sullied Newton’s reputation on the continent.

I knew Gleick from his much earlier Chaos, a piece of popular science writing that was the Dancing Wu Li Masters of its time. Fun stuff, but we’re not talking Bruno Latour here. Isaac Newton has a similar tone: Gleick tells a good, smooth story. I could have done without the uninformative passages where Gleick waxed lyrical about the intellectual climate of seventeenth-century England or the importance of the work of Newton, but Isaac Newton gave me the spine I was looking for.

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