Compact biography of the great English scientist, the third in Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series (Chaucer, 2005; J.M.W. Turner, 2006).
Born on Christmas day 1642, Isaac Newton was the posthumous child of an illiterate yeoman farmer. His mother remarried and left him to be raised by his grandmother. At a local school, he distinguished himself by his inventiveness at creating toys and gadgets; it quickly became apparent he had no aptitude for farming. At his teacher’s urging, he was sent to Cambridge, where he so excelled in math that he was appointed a professor at the age of 26. His full genius bloomed during an involuntary vacation forced by the Great Plague of 1665. He experimented with prisms to uncover the nature of light; he worked up the essentials of calculus; and he laid the foundations for a theory of gravitation. Upon his return to the academic world, he began to publish some of what he had learned. Ackroyd points out that Newton was not in any haste to make his mark; indeed, a certain secretiveness characterized his work for much of his life. He delved into alchemical and theological speculations, which he was probably just as wise not to commit to publication. (In fact, had his religious convictions become known, he would undoubtedly have had to resign his academic post.) He also indulged in a series of professional feuds, with Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Gottfried Leibnitz in particular, that are perhaps the most regrettable blemish on his reputation. Ackroyd gives enough of the historical context to make Newton’s salient character traits and greatest accomplishments clear to the modern reader.
A slim but solid introduction, akin to James Gleick’s Isaac Newton (2003).