Giant Before Us

Isaac Newton

By James Gleick

Published by Pantheon

Copyright: © 2003

Isaac Newton at 46

James Gleick left Harvard in 1976 with a degree in English and a disposition towards independence from the 9 to 5. His initial attempt at independence after college was launching a weekly newspaper in the midwest city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. This endeavor ended in failure within a year, and it would take another 10 years before he could leave his day job, succeeding as an author of history of science and a provider of internet service in New York City.

His first book, Chaos: Making a New Science, was critically acclaimed and a million copy best seller establishing Gleick as a first-rate storyteller of difficult subjects to the lay public. He wrote two other bestsellers, both biographies, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman in 1992 and Isaac Newton nine years later.

Gleick presents Newton’s life in chronological order, painting a beautiful portrait of his acheivements but also imparting a sense of his being as a human. His accomplishments were beyond exceptional, but his temperament was that of a reluctant member of society at large, not easily befriended, easy to offend, and not quick to forgive. Current hypotheses suggest that Newton may have suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the milder forms of autism. As a social being he appears a lot like Beethoven, also a genius but also without grace or courtesy.

Issac Newton was born fatherless, on Christmas Day in 1642 according to the Julian calendar, still in use in England at the time, or the less interesting 4 January 1643 by the today’s Gregorian calendar, on a sheep farmstead far north of London in Lincolnshire County. His father died about three months before his birth and in three years he was shuffled off to a grandmother’s care for the next 9 years to keep him away and out of site from his mother’s new husband, Reverend Barnabas Smith. His early education was at the ancient King’s School, already more than two hundred years old when he entered in 1655 and still operates as an all-boys grammer school to this day. Upon finishing at King’s School, he entered Trinity College at Cambridge in 1661 and, except for a year away in 1665, he stayed as a student and professor until 1696. Immediately following Cambridge, he became Warden of the King’s Mint and in 1703 became president of the Royal Society and stayed in that position until he died in 1727.

Newton’s contributions to the world were many and varied. His Three Laws of Motion were revolutionary in the 18th century, and as a testament to their lasting correctness are still taught to every school kid early in their education. The Law of Gravitation explained the orbit of the heavenly bodies and why apples fall and not rise, float, or go sideways. It has since been replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity but is still a particularly good approximation for us lessor mortals. Calculus. Enough said.

Newton also intensely studied the bible, believing that the universe could only exist through the existence of God. He rejected the Trinity believing there is one God, God the Father with Jesus and the Holy Spirit subservient to God. Newton also predicted that the end of times would not come before 2060, 38 short years from now. Still a little early to be maxing out your credit cards.

Newton researched and experimented with alchemy, including looking for the Philosophers Stone and the force that keeps the planets in their orbits. Seeking the Philosophers Stone may have been worthy of Harry Potter but I’m not sure about Newton. Newton never published anything on his alchemy studies, likely because it didn’t make any sense. Now looking for the force that kept planets from falling your head during a walk-in park was worthy of Newton and the rest of the world, especially Einstein. Newton found it and it was called gravity.

My one complaint with Gleick’s book is his derisive commenting on Newton’s fascination with alchemy through today’s lens of knowledge rather than accepting that understanding and meaning in this world changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. People respond to the time they live in not to the unknowns of the future. Newton put it this way, “What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” and one can only study the drop that he has.

One of my favorite quotes of Newton or anyone for that matter was, “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true.” I liked this quote when I first saw it, not because it was profound, it was, but because it was an idea I had promulgated early on in my education, if it didn’t make logical sense, it probably was wrong.

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