Friday, May 29, 2009

Issac Newton by James Gleick

An interesting (but brief) exploration into one of the greatest figures in history. While I was happy to find a short biography, after it was done I found I wanted greater detail. I can’t fault Gleick for that because he seems to cover the major aspects of Newton’s life and makes the work accessible. I knew of the odd personal experiments (knitting needle in the eye socket and staring at the sun for as long as he could handle it), but these were put into greater context – Newton was examining notions of perception and sensation and whether experiences were internal or out in the world. Further, Gleick reminded of Newton’s alchemy, metallurgy, theology and that Newton was the head of the Royal Mint for a good chunk of his later life.
Gleick also describes the staggering accomplisments that Newton achieved: foundation work on light and optics; glass and telescopes; calculus and, of course, gravity. To think of someone inventing the notion of infinite series to solve problems as well as being the first to usefully describe and specify what we call “gravity” is truly impressive. I was also surprised to learn that Newton predicted the Earth was oblate in shape and not perfectly circular because of the rotation (this is in fact true). Considering most people don’t know this now and he was able to figure this out in the late 1600s is one more indication of his immense powers of reasoning. Newton, despite his theological leanings, was also the person who pushed the concept of having experiments and data to justify belief as mere opinion was not sufficient.
Newton’s intermittently nasty personality is also explored, like when he attempted to defend his discovery of calculus by discrediting Leibnitz. The Royal Society released an anonymous report indicating that Leibnitz could not be trusted on a whole range of issues, chief among them his claim to the calculus. Further, an anonymous review of this report said additional words of condemnation. Both the report AND the review were by Newton. Sneaky Issac! Apparently, if you want your name preserved in history, make sure to kick everyone else down.

Issac Newton is a good book that describes an obsessive man that barely travelled and never knew a woman but revolutionized mathematics and physics such that we are still using his work as a foundation for understanding the world (ever use the words inertia, momentum, or gravity?).
If we have seen further, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of Newton.


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