Science author and journalist Gleick (Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, 1999, etc.) traces with equal measures of irony and sympathy the life of an Enlightenment icon as notable for misery, backbiting, paranoia, deceit, and greed as brilliance.
Fatherless, left in the care of his grandparents for eight years, young Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was so maladjusted that he threatened to torch the house of his mother and stepfather with them inside. His schoolmaster and uncle rescued him from life on the farm by getting him admitted to Trinity College at Cambridge. In 1666, when the college was stricken by plague, he returned home and embarked on his landmark mathematical studies. Yet his magnum opus, Principia (1687), came only after years of half-hints to scientific colleagues and controversies over plagiarism. Gleick spends much effort elaborating how Newton followed up on imperfectly intuited hypotheses by Galileo and Descartes to derive laws related to gravitation, inertia, planetary motion, and optics. But inevitably the focus shifts to how this loveless, largely friendless man tried to peer into the heart of the world’s mysteries. Unable to purge “occult, hidden, mystical qualities from his vision of nature,” the scientist’s research encompassed not just mathematics but also two more disreputable covert enterprises: alchemy and unorthodox scriptural interpretation. Newton evinced “implacable ruthlessness” toward scientists Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens, John Flamsteed, and Gottfried Leibniz. Hair and clothing askew, he scratched diagrams with his stick in the walkways of Trinity and, as the half-century mark approached, experienced a nervous breakdown. In his last three decades, he grew rich as the college’s Warden and later Master of the Mint. For all his faults, Gleick notes, Newton’s legacy is clear: “He bequeathed to science, that institution in its throes of birth, a research program, practical and open-ended.”
Engaging, concise biography of a monumental visionary and eccentric whose life was as remarkable as the universe he struggled to understand. (16 b&w illustrations)