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Isaac Newton Hardcover – May 13, 2003


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

As a schoolbook figure, Isaac Newton is most often pictured sitting under an apple tree, about to discover the secrets of gravity. In this short biography, James Gleick reveals the life of a man whose contributions to science and math included far more than the laws of motion for which he is generally famous. Gleick's always-accessible style is hampered somewhat by the need to describe Newton's esoteric thinking processes. After all, the man invented calculus. But readers who stick with the book will discover the amazing story of a scientist obsessively determined to find out how things worked. Working alone, thinking alone, and experimenting alone, Newton often resorted to strange methods, as when he risked his sight to find out how the eye processed images:

.... Newton, experimental philosopher, slid a bodkin into his eye socket between eyeball and bone. He pressed with the tip until he saw 'severall white darke & coloured circles'.... Almost as recklessly, he stared with one eye at the sun, reflected in a looking glass, for as long as he could bear.

From poor beginnings, Newton rose to prominence and wealth, and Gleick uses contemporary accounts and notebooks to track the genius's arc, much as Newton tracked the paths of comets. Without a single padded sentence or useless fact, Gleick portrays a complicated man whose inspirations required no falling apples. --Therese Littleton

From Publishers Weekly

Gleick's most renowned writing falls into one of two categories: vivid character studies or broad syntheses of scientific trends. Here, he fuses the two genres with a biography of the man who was emblematic of a new scientific paradigm, but this short study falls a bit short on both counts. The author aims to "ground this book as wholly as possible in its time; in the texts," and his narrative relies heavily on direct quotations from Newton's papers, extensively documented with more than 60 pages of notes. While his attention to historical detail is impressive, Gleick's narrative aims somewhere between academic and popular history, and his take on Newton feels a bit at arms-length, only matching the vibrancy of his Feynman biography at moments (particularly when describing Newton's disputes with such competitors as Robert Hooke or Leibniz). As might be expected, Gleick's descriptions of Newton's scientific breakthroughs are clear and engaging, and his book is strongest when discussing the shift to a mathematical view of the world that Newton championed. In the end, this is a perfectly serviceable overview of Newton's life and work, and will bring this chapter in the history of science to a broader audience, but it lacks the depth one hopes for from a writer of Gleick's abilities.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (May 13, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422331
  • ISBN-13: 978-0965738002
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (134 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #440,847 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

201 of 209 people found the following review helpful By Richard Wells on May 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I'm not a mathematician; I'm not even much good at arithmetic. Once when trying to count backward from 100 by 7's I started with 97, went to 93, and gave up. Of course I was lying in a hospital bed, but even at my best I wouldn't have gotten far. I tell you this because I approached "Isaac Newton," by James Gleick expecting to read the introduction, pick up a few bits-and-bobs, and bail out. What a surprise to find myself reading even while walking to the bus stop. Thank you, Mr. Gleick for a fascinating biography that doesn't bog down in numbers, but still imparts the scientific information salient to Mr. Newton's life.
Isaac Newton was a piece of work. A scientist, but also a student of biblical prophecy; a chemist, but also an alchemist; a public figure as well as something of a recluse; a fountain of learning who refused to publish. Isaac Newton was a man of his times, and Mr. Gleick points out the very interesting paradox that Newton lived in a pre-Newtonian world. Of course he would be filled with contradictions. Even so, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Newton's contemporary and a philosopher/mathematician in his own right who found himself at odds with Newton by independently inventing differential and integral calculus, told the Queen of Prussia that "in mathematics there was all previous history, from the beginning of the world, and then there was Newton; and that Newton's was the better half."
If you would like a better understanding of the laws of nature we take for granted, and an understanding of the life and times of the complicated man who formulated them for us, then I recommend this highly readable (and mathematically understandable) biography.
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80 of 87 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on July 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
First off, let me say that I am a great admirer of Isaac Newton. Einstein is who he is and deserves every accolade put upon him but, in my opinion, humankind has never produced a scientific genius as great as Newton. He understood the world in a way that has never been equaled before or since.
That being said, let me also say that this is a very good biography of Newton. It is brief so it is easily digestible by anyone. Still, what is lacks in depth it makes up for in coverage. We get glimpses of many parts of Newton's life, from his obsessive questioning and scientific investigation of the plague/fire years through his hiding-in-plain-sight years at Trinity through the renown of his London years as President of the Royal Society and Warden of the Mint.
Gleick also does not shy away from the less understandable parts of Newton's nature--his hypersensitivity to criticism, his theological struggles and his relentless alchemical investigations. Though, as this biography makes clear, even his ability to achieve his well-known and -respected triumphs in mathematics and physics really defy understanding. Let's face it, there is something about genius that is beyond any kind of clarity for those of us not touched by it.
Anyone interested in a quick look at an amazing man should read this book. I would also suggest taking the time to follow the many endnotes that Gleick has provided. Unlike many notes of this type, these are very readable and add to the text, though some probably could have been added right to the body of the text without much interruption of the flow. In any case, Gleick has written a fine book about a true genius.
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49 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Kim Eisler on May 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I though Galileo's Daughter was the best book I read last year, and this one is a close second. Only James Gleick has the self-confidence and skill to synthesize the life of Newton down to 191 succinct and fascinating pages. The average author, full of himself, would probably write about 1,191 pages and you wouldn't be able to lift the book. This is a masterpiece of time, space, light and color. A reader in motion will tend to remain in motion. It was just great, I read it in one sitting. I hope this starts a trend!
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on July 12, 2004
Format: Hardcover
With almost poetic grace, Gleick portrays the life and thinking of history's most expansive mind. Works on Newton aren't as common as might be expected. The task of addressing such a monumental mentality is formidable, to say the least. Only the most ambitious or analytical could attempt it. Gleick's effort encompasses the major facets of Newton's life, including his academic, political and religious aspects. He avoids the modern approach of delving into Newton's psyche or recapitulating three centuries of scholarly disputation. Even the "falling apple" story is redrawn as Newton's realisation that apparent size compared with distance expressed a relationship needing explanation. The result is a clean, unobstructed view of a complex man - and his legacy.
From meagre beginnings Newton carved an expansive niche in European scholarship. His skills, noted early, brought him a Cambridge appointment at 27. Already showing great promise, he was a reluctant publisher. He sequestered himself in his rooms, later in a small cottage. He'd lived almost alone during his childhood, but his curiosity led him in many directions. The prism experiments, breaking sunlight with a prism, began his long career in what is now deemed "physics". Light's properties were the subject of great dispute, with Newton holding to emitted particles. Waves seemed to adhere to the Cartesian "vortices" which Newton found suspect. Playing with mirrors and lenses led to the reflecting telescope widely used today. Thinking about the heavenly bodies he observed led, of course, to his idea of gravitational attraction. Not a popular idea then, since such forces were disdained.
It's difficult to assess whether his delving into the facts of nature led to his personal isolation, or the reverse holds.
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