THE LIFE OF ISAAC NEWTON by Richard S. Westfall


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 A condensed version of Westfall's 1981 biography of Newton, Never at Rest (priced at $100 and not reviewed), that nevertheless displays a high level of scholarship and detail. Westfall (History and Philosophy of Science/Indiana University) clearly has pored over the letters and papers that accumulated over Newton's 83-year lifetime (1642-1727), including the theological and alchemical writings as well as the all- important Opticks and Principia. There's a presumption that the reader appreciates the revolution in science wrought by Newton, and the fundamental philosophical disputes between him and his contemporaries: Newton raging against the Cartesians with all their hypothetical and vortex-ridden speculations in contrast to his own theory-grounded-in-experiment approach. But while one can acknowledge the genius that was Newton, not even Westfall--with his consummate understanding, fair-mindedness, and sympathy--can make the man lovable. There are of course, the circumstances of the scientist's life: His father died before he was born, and, when he was three, his mother remarried, leaving the boy to be raised by his maternal grandparents. Without undue emphasis on Freud, Westfall makes clear that such beginnings contributed to the loneliness and isolation, the neuroses, obsessions, and paranoia that characterized the life. The maligning of Robert Hooke, the undermining of the astronomer Flamsteed, and the vicious attack on Leibniz over priority in the invention of calculus add nothing to Newton's luster. Still, the scientist mellowed in the end. He presided over the Royal Society, gained income from his position at the Mint, was generous to his many relatives, and enjoyed the company of his remarkable niece in his house in London. On his deathbed, Newton refused the sacraments, confirming his lifelong anti-Trinitarianism (which could not otherwise be revealed in public). An altogether admirable job of scholarship, whose weightiness is balanced by the surfacing, from time to time, of Westfall's dry humor. (Six halftones; nine line drawings.)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-521-43252-9
Page count: 325pp
Publisher: Cambridge Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993


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