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ISAAC NEWTON by Michael White


The Last Sorcerer

by Michael White

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-201-48301-7
Publisher: Addison-Wesley

 The title gives the slant of this impressive new biography, which emphasizes Newton's intellectual debt to his predecessors. White (Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, 1992) accuses previous biographers of ignoring Newton's deep-seated interests in alchemy and biblical exegesis, treating him instead as a paragon of science and rationality. Newton inherited some 250 volumes of theology and religious controversy from his stepfather, Barnabas Smith, the wealthy rector of a nearby parish. His early education was typical of the time: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and divinity. But by the time he went to Cambridge, he had settled on mathematics and science as his calling, and refused holy orders so he could further his studies. White alternates chapters of biographical material with chapters outlining the roots of Newton's ideological milieu: Aristotelian physics, only recently challenged by Galileo's experiments; Descartes's mathematics; and the rich lore of alchemy, with its ultimate goal of creating the Philosopher's Stone. Newton studied alchemy under the tutelage of Robert Boyle (one of the founders of modern chemistry--a discipline not yet separated from alchemy). White gives a detailed summary of Newton's alchemical work, as well as of his theological speculations (involving complex allegorical interpretations of history as well as scripture). As a full-time academic, he got into his share of intramural squabbles, a pattern he carried over into his scientific work. White gives a clear account of the latter, particularly the optics and the groundbreaking investigations that led to the Principia. Into his later career, one of Newton's major goals remained the reconciliation of his religious beliefs and his scientific discoveries; he gravely sought to construct an explanation of action at a distance (as in gravitation) in terms of his unorthodox theological views. White effectively sets the details of Newton's career against the larger canvas of the history of ideas, and this may be the first clear exposition of the full complexity of this brilliant and enigmatic figure.