Isaac Newton , by James Gleick (Pantheon; ISBN 0375422331)

The question of who possessed the greatest scientific mind in all of recorded history is an interesting one, but somewhat misstated. The real question is whose was the second greatest intellect, because no serious student of the history of science would ever pick anyone but Isaac Newton for the number one slot.

Einstein, Aristotle, Planck, Euclid…these were all certified geniuses whose insights into mathematics and the workings of the physical universe were almost unimaginably profound and astounding. But it's only a small exaggeration to say that what Newton conceived of, largely in solitude and with a dismaying paucity of publication, surpassed in sheer brilliance the total output of the next ten also-rans. Science itself can be divided into pre- and post-Newton eras, and he was in a quite literal sense the architect of how we perceive the universe, right to this very day. His laws of motion ("A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless…") are taught in modern classrooms using the same words in which he first formulated them. Calculus, the branch of mathematics he invented single-handedly as a tool for his research, is a cornerstone of modern math and physics and hasn't changed appreciably in three hundred years.

Mathematicians and physicists know all of this, so the challenge is that of conveying to the general reader something of why Newton was arguably one of the most important and influential human beings who ever lived. That seems to be the challenge to which James Gleick set himself in writing this book, and whether he succeeded is itself fodder for interesting debate. For my money, the answer depends on how you approach the book.

In the popular style kicked off by Dava Sobell's captivating bestseller, Longitude, Gleick's book is only 191 pages long (excluding notes) which, on the face of it, seems utterly absurd. Even to only list Newton's contributions would take more pages than that, so we're already alerted to the fact that there will be little scientific depth. Instead, Gleick's approach seems to be to give us only a flavor of what Newton accomplished and some insight into who he really was, and in this sense the book has merit.

Isaac Newton reads like an ode, a tone poem to the greatest thinker of all time. To readers who already have at least a passing familiarity with most of the concepts Newton gave us, the book is a beautifully written highlight reel, not unlike one of those network recaps of a multi-day sporting event that attempts to put into some kind of context all the detail you've already watched, and overlays the whole with unabashed adoration set to lush music. Even Gleick's prose is tuned to his sentiment, a faintly romantic and Victorian style of writing oddly in sync with his obvious reverence for his subject. One gets the impression that he was so thoroughly drawn into the tenor of Newton's times that it never occurred to him to define for us, or simply not use, such obscure terms as "bodkin."

If a twenty-volume set of the life and works of Newton were ever to be undertaken, Gleick's book could be its introduction. It is the ultimate appetite whetter, a breezy skim across the thinnest surface of an ocean of substance. The net result is an ache to know more, rather than the feeling of having learned something substantive, like being told how wonderful a work of art is rather than seeing it with your own eyes. The book is entirely too short, and the effort to limit the page count is apparent throughout. While the essential story of longitude was conveyable in a small book, Isaac Newton is not, and if this excessive brevity was to make him more palatable to the masses, it begs the question of whether "palatable" is at all compatible with "adequate." Alas, in this case it isn't, but the good news is that this book might prompt some readers to further investigation.

-Lee Gruenfeld

 

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