Fascinating if sometimes dense study describing how Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) came to be regarded as the world’s first scientific genius.
The word “scientist” did not even exist until 100 years after Newton’s death, notes Fara (History and Philosophy of Science/Cambridge); he was known during his lifetime not so much for the laws of motion and optics as for his expertise on biblical chronologies (to him we owe the current obsession of Satanists with the number 666) and on the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. The author sketches what details we have concerning Newton’s life (no one knows for certain when he was born) and describes his most enduring achievement: demonstrating that bodies in the heavens obey the same physical laws as those on earth. Informing us that there is no way to verify the falling-apple story, Fara moves on to examine the images of Newton in paintings, etchings, and sculptures during and after his life. She also assesses his popularizers—including the adventurous folks who published the fashionable book Newton for the Ladies—and explores the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz, noting the irony that the latter is remembered as a philosopher rather than as the formidable mathematician he was. Meanwhile, throughout this engaging text, she displays an easy familiarity with arts and letters as well as with the relevant scientific literature. Most interesting of all are Fara’s discussions of the evolving notion of “genius.” She notes with amusement the thin line between “genius” and “insanity,” then discusses how the mantle of “genius” has passed from Newton to Einstein to Hawking and reveals that at a 1998 auction a first edition of Newton’s Principia (1687) went for nearly £2 million.
Nothing seems beyond Fara’s grasp in her scholarly examination of apples and alchemy, physics and fame, public relations and reputation. (41 illustrations)