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The Life of Isaac Newton (Canto original series) Paperback – July 29, 1994

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Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

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.) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Beyond this survey of Newton's life and significance we also are treated to a summary of contemporary scholarship on many aspects of Newton's multifaceted career. And it is a delight to read!" The Reader's Review

"An altogether admirable job of scholarship, whose weightiness is balanced by the surfacing...of Westfall's dry humor." Kirkus Reviews

"The Life of Issac a servicable volume...widely read by a public curious about Newton's life." Michael Hunter, Times Literary Supplement

"...a lively and lucid expositor of Newton's ideas and he has written an excellent book for those who want an authoritative introduction to Newton but do not have the time or the inclination to wrestle with the finer points of his mathematics." William R. Shea, Nature

"Westfall's account of his subject's personal life is gratifyingly elegant and precise....In bringing the truth of Newton's life to a wider audience, Westfall has certainly succeeded." Peg Padnos, Wilson Library Bulletin

"...Westfall is a master, and apart from the original, no better or more comprehensive introduction to Newton's life and work is to be had." J. McClellan III, Steven's Institute of Technology

"...the very smoothness of his prose commends this abbreviated version to physicists as well as to lay persons....I commend to you the great wealth of information contained in Westfall's work." American Journal of Physics

"Richard Westfall has admirably succeeded in demolishing the plaster saint and revealing, probably as much as one can ever hope to do, Newton the man. The portrait he paints shows someone who could be brutal and spiteful,...someone who was secretive to the point of paranoia; and had few if any friends in his life....This story is recounted in fluent and gripping prose by the author who deserves the Leo Gershoy Award, an American Historical award for his efforts." J. Langins, Applied Mechanics Review

" Westfall has effectively reduced his longer 1980 biography of Newton to a size that is more suitable for general audiences....strongly recommended." Doug Carmichael, Science Books & Films

"Westfall made it his business in writing Never at Rest to examine all the Newton manuscripts currently available for scholarly study...He speaks with authority about them all, offering his own interpretation of the importance of the theological papers (one that greatly advances our understanding of them) and also of the place of alchemy in Newton's work. He manages to make both Newton's alchemy and his religious interests seem integral to the story of Newton's life while keeping the scientific work in focus, an approach that offers the reader both breadth and the modern perspective on Newton's importance." B.J.T. Dobbs, ISIS of alch

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Product Details

  • Series: Canto original series
  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (July 29, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521477379
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521477376
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #307,402 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Shab Levy on August 6, 2002
Format: Paperback
The preface to "The Life of Isaac Newton" starts with "Few men have lived for whom less need exist to justify a biography." To this I would like to add that few books have been written which need to be read more than the "Life of Isaac Newton" by Richard Westfall.
A thorough research of the life and work of one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, if not the greatest, Westfall paints a vivid picture of the life of Newton from childhood to old age. He describes Newton as not only a scientific genius, but as the person who revolutionized science, and thus influenced the way of thinking, and indeed the way of modern life.
Newton, to be sure, was not an easy person to live with, nor was he a perfect human being. All this however pales in comparison to his superior intellect and deep understanding of nature. The book gives ample accounting of Newton's two great works "Opticks" and "Principia" and how these two have influenced the world he lived in, and the effects they left forever since.
This book is a necessary reading not only for those interested in science, but for all who want to have a glimpse into the way of life in the 16th and 17th centuries, and especially the way science and philosophy spread throughout the world.
Read it!
Shab Levy
Portland, OR 2002
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By emily sablosky on April 15, 2007
Format: Paperback
Westfall's "Life of Isaac Newton" is everything the other reviewers say in regards to it being a good ABRIDGED biography of Newton. True, it is based in thorough scholarship and has served for the basis for many other Newton biographies to follow. But I would strongly caution any historian, whether by hobby or profession, to solely consult this book when referencing or discussing Newton. Westfall's abridged version lacks any mention of references (unless you count the very incomplete bibliographical essay at the end) in either footnotes, endnotes, or a comprehensive bibliography. In order to trace his references, one must consult his much more complete "Never at Rest", which is, altogether, a much more academic book. Don't get me wrong, "The Life of Isaac Newton" is easy to read and a good foundational text but should not serve as an authority on Newton, but rather a companion to a more authoritative text on Newton.

Aside from the historiographical issues in this book, if it is to serve as an introduction to early modern science, it might also help readers to know that they should read, at some point, some sort of text that deals with British history from the Sixteenth through Eighteenth centuries, as Wesfall provides no historical or political background in which to understand Newton. Based on my own reading of books to suit this purpose I would recommend Simon Schama's "History of Britain, vol. 2"; "Leviathan and the Air-pump" by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer; "Leviathan" by Thomas Hobbes, or "The Scientific Revolution" also by Steven Shapin (which would be less of a cultural or political history but a good introduction to the issues with history of science in the seventeenth century).
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. Prebble on December 2, 2008
Format: Paperback
This book is an abridged version of the author's much larger full biography, Never at Rest, published in 1980. In the preface the author notes that this is very much an abridgement rather than a rewrite, because his interests have changed and he could not do justice to the research on Newton that had gone on in the intervening years to 1993. This makes the work 28 years out of date, although in historical terms it is hard to know if this is an issue.

The perceptible difference is in the tone. Early on in the book, especially, Westfall adopts an almost sycophantic attitude to Newton's genius, constantly assessing each event in terms of whether it demonstrates the great man's ability, and nudging us knowingly when other thinkers have not recognised this towering intellect before he has published anything. I'm not sure a (non-revisionist) writer setting out to write Newton's biography today would adopt such an attitude, and would hopefully be more inclined to tell the story and let the events speak for themselves.

Happily, as the book goes on and Newton's talent is recognised we are given a glimpse of the man himself, and it truly is a fascinating vision. I found Newton's obsession with alchemy and the Holy Trinity (which, for him, represented the Beast of Revelation) even more fascinating than his work on optics and gravitation. Newton comes across as a man of almost aspergic obsessiveness and aversion to engage in normal social interactions, one who set terrifyingly high standards, both intellectual and moral, which only he, working prodigiously in a position many treated as a sinecure, could ever hope to aspire to.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Rachel Smith on April 17, 2006
Format: Paperback
The Life of Isaac Newton, by Richard Westfall, addresses the life and work of one of the greatest scientists of all time. Indeed, many consider Isaac Newton to be the greatest scientist of all time, because his work was the culmination of the Scientific Revolution. Westfall covers Newton's unhappy childhood, from which he escaped to Cambridge University where he emerged as a solitary, studious individual. Newton's genius found expression during the anni mirabilis, 1664-1666, when Cambridge was closed due to the plague. During these years, Newton explored a wide range of scientific issues, including mathematical physics, optics, mechanics, and celestial dynamics. He expanded upon Descartes' geometry, to develop the calculus. He conducted experiments with light, concluding that white light is made up of a series of colors. Newton also pursued studies of the movement of objects, following up on the work of Gallileo. Westfall covers Newton's lengthy career at Cambridge, where he devoted his life to his studies, avoiding most relationships and incurring animosity and resentment among many of his fellow scientists, including Robert Hooke. Newton's masterpiece was the Principia, in which he laid out his three laws of motion: inertia; acceleration; and action and reaction. Newton also presented the laws of universal gravitation. Westfall was compelled to write this biography - which is a shortened version of his larger, more technical study - to share the unfolding of the amazing genius who discovered so many of the laws underlying the physical world. This book is worth reading because it provides in an accessible form insights into the discoveries in the fields of mathematics and physics that ushered in the world of modern science.
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