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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb
A first rate biography should include a good description of the important achievements of the subject, give a good sense of the subject's personality, provide the appropriate historic context in which to view the subject, be well written, and have good documentation. Westfall's biography of Newton is first-rate in all these dimensions. Newton is arguably the most...
Published on March 17, 2006 by R. Albin

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42 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not for the mathematically challenged
After looking at various biographies of Isaac Newton I finally decided to purchase this one as it was thought to be the most thorough. And it is thorough indeed. Too thorough.
I realize that it might sound silly to criticize a biography for giving me too much information concerning a topic I wanted to learn about, but that's my honest opinion. There were stretches...
Published on January 21, 2009 by Joseph Devon


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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, March 17, 2006
By 
R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
A first rate biography should include a good description of the important achievements of the subject, give a good sense of the subject's personality, provide the appropriate historic context in which to view the subject, be well written, and have good documentation. Westfall's biography of Newton is first-rate in all these dimensions. Newton is arguably the most important person in modern history. His work inaugurates both modern mathematics and modern physics. His achievements as a physicist set the pattern not only for physics but also for the other natural sciences. Newton's impact in larger culture extended also beyond the world of sciences. The historian of religion George Marsden wrote that Newton was the most important individual in the founding of the 18th century Enlightenment. Though Newton cannot be considered a member of that movement, his example of demonstrating universal natural laws understandable by human reason was immensely influential in European intellectual culture.

Westfall provides a detailed chronological account of Newton's life that covers all his major (and minor) achievements and is simply excellent at integrating the relevant historical background information. As Westfall writes, we regard Newton as a scientist and the emphasis in on Newton's career as a working scientist and mathematician. But, this is described very clearly within the context of late 17th century Europe. Westfall, for example, devotes ample pages to Newton's study of alchemy and theology. Since Newton spent a large fraction of his life working in these areas, it would be imposing an anachronistic perspective to minimize attention to these topics. Westfall is excellent at describing both the intellectual and social milieu in which Newton functioned. The sections detailing the history of mathematics and physics of Newton's important predecessors and contemporaries are first-rate, particularly his analysis of the impact of Descartes analytical geometry and mechanistic philosophy. His descriptions of 17th century Cambridge, with its concentration of pseudo-academic placemen, and of the generally patronage driven world of Caroline Britain are excellent. Never at Rest provides a vivid impression of the nature of scientific work in Newton's time. Westfall does not shirk from presenting complex mathematical and physical topics. These sections are tough going for those who don't recall a lot of math and physics but very worthwhile because they give an excellent sense of Newton's transforming effects on these disciplines.

Westfall delineates Newton's difficult personality very well and is fair in dealing with the numerous conflicts in which Newton became enmeshed, particularly the famous priority dispute with Leibnitz. Some of Newton's behavior is shown also to have stemmed from unexpected sources. Newton's theological researches led him to the conclusion that much accepted Christian theology is wrong and he had to conceal his Arianism and anti-Trinitarianism for much of his life. Some of Newton's achievements are shown as stemming from unexpected sources also. Westfall shows that Newton's alchemical researches, with their rather mystical element, probably contributed to freeing him from dogmatic mechanistic philosophy and facilitated his development of the idea of a universal, intrinsic gravitational force.

Newton is a fascinating figure and this biography will remain the standard for the foreseeable future.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent example of biographers art- Comprehensive & clear, January 10, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
A comprehensive yet clearly written biography spanning every facet of the life of one of the worlds true geniuses. Compelling from beginning to end this book combines extensive research with a passion to provide an insight into both the work and personal life of Newton. Whilst other work may need to be consulted by the most mathematically minded, readers with a yearning for an insight into Newton's discoveries will generally be pleased at the detail provided. My only critism would be that this very large tome came to an end. Purchasers should be aware that at over 900 pages the paperback version of this book will require careful treatment if it is to survive.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pebbles on a shore, October 19, 2002
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
There are a fair number of Newton biographies, this one is the most comprehensive and thorough, with a full treatment of the development of Newton's scientific and mathematical thought. What is remarkable is how rapidly Newton mastered the essentials of the techniques of his contemporaries, quietly reaching the forefront of knowledge, this in a few years, and without much prior training before his arrival in the world of Cambridge, where he flowered at once despite the almost defunct educational status of this university. The myth, however, of the annus mirabilis needs replacement with the reality of the anni mirabili, next to the near abandonment of mathematics for some years as Newton's concerns passed to encompass something broader than pure physics and his deskdrawer 'calculus' still embedded in geometrical formalisms. The final composition of the Principia in the wake of the coaxing forth of De Motu is grounds for thunderous applause for Halley who had the presence of mind to grasp who he was dealing with and the politic manner needed to communicate/negotiate with the reclusive prime mover of theory. His great work complete Newton is off to rescue the coinage at the Royal Mint,thence to the forgettable episodes of the priority quarrel with Leibniz. This work is slow but superb on all aspects of Newton's life.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A magnificent book about a great life, April 23, 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
This is a remarkable biography because it so thoroughly tells the story of Sir Isaac Newton in all its various aspects. Newton's determination to know, his science (breathtaking science, his awesome brilliance), the religious and alchemical investigations, the cranky aloofness, are all carefully and fully drawn; by the end of the book, you feel, along with the author, that you have got to know the subject (at least to the extent one might get to know the great man).
This is a great biography, because it is so detailed, so in depth and so successful at bringing Newton in view. It is also likely that it will for many years surpass any other biography of Newton because of its thoroughness.
I think it is worth reading not only because the reader learns so much about the science and life of one of history's great thinkers, and to some extent how he thought, but also because the reader gains an appreciation of the hard work of invention even for one so gifted as Newton, and some insight into the hard work of turning observations into theoretical constructs.
A magnificent biography.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unquestionably a masterpiece!, March 5, 2001
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
This is in the same class as Ray Monk's Wittgenstein biography or Martin Gilbert's Churchill.
I couldn't put it down until I was at the back page, many dozens of hours after I began!
It left me exhausted but enriched!
This sets a standard by which the modern science biography should be judged.
Westfall says something to the effect that the more you know about a person, the closer you get to them, but in Newton's case, the more we learn, the more mysterious he becomes.
You won't be disappointed.
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42 of 50 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not for the mathematically challenged, January 21, 2009
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
After looking at various biographies of Isaac Newton I finally decided to purchase this one as it was thought to be the most thorough. And it is thorough indeed. Too thorough.
I realize that it might sound silly to criticize a biography for giving me too much information concerning a topic I wanted to learn about, but that's my honest opinion. There were stretches of this book that contained massive amounts of mathematical equations interspersed with barely a sentence or two of text. As someone who has a hard enough time figuring out the tip on his dinner bill I found these giant chunks of numbers and symbols to be utterly meaningless and downright headache inducing.
I wanted to hear more about Isaac Newton the man. I realize that he discovered calculus but that doesn't mean I want to read calculus problems in his biography. It has to be possible to get across his life's story without page after page of equations. And not only that, but there was no attempt made to take these discoveries of his and show how they related to and affected the rest of the world. I didn't understand the point of calculus in high-school, and after reading this book I still didn't understand the point of calculus. I had to go do further research. It was like reading a biography of Edison and getting no notion of why the light bulb was such a revolution. No information about what people did for light before this invention or where it was put to use or how widespread it became. It was frustrating for me as I felt like I was missing out on the larger context.
That being said, if you are capable of reading math then I'd have to assume you already know why calculus is so important and where it's used, in which case I can't imagine a more thorough biography being written. For me, though, massive chunks of it might as well have been in ancient Greek and I came away a bit more puzzled then when I went in.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb biography of Isaac newton, March 1, 2001
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
This book is a detailed and wide ranging biography of Isaac Newton. Though long (908 pages), the writing is crisp and precise. There is sufficient detail here that justifies the subject. Isaac Newton was arguably the greatest mathematician that ever lived except perhaps for Mersene. Every aspect of Newton's life is described in good detail. There is enough mathematics here to justify the biographical needs and to interest the reader to explore further. If you wish to get more of Newton's mathematics I recommend his Principia which is still a good read.
All in all this book is excellent. The nature and scope of the subject matter demands that the book be long. But the time and effort spent will be richly rewarded.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome!, January 15, 2006
This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
I just finished Westfall's biography of Sir Isaac Newton. The man was way more amazing than I ever expected. For myself, being neither a mathematician nor a physicist, the most fascinating and surprising thing was his in depth and, for the time, out of the box examination of religion.

As with his scientific studies, Newton's religious studies were relentless in the pursuit of Truth. Between the end of the Bible and the nineteen century, I can find no one who concluded more precisely such doctrines as the nature of God, the relationship of the Father and Son, the relationship of God and man, the nature of early Christianity, or the magnitude and meaning of the then extant departure of Christianity from the original. Obviously, this is from an observer who agrees with his conclusions.

Newton's prodigious talent for leaving no stone unturned in his examination of his subject matter, coupled with his utter genius leaves me entirely in awe.

Westfall's 20 year effort in writing this biography has yielded a masterpiece!
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15 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone who pay a tribute to Newton must buy, August 20, 2001
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This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
This is the most authorative biograghy of Newton, the greatest genius of all time!! No need to add more words to praise him. Though the book runs over 900 pages, you would be reading the book breathless until the last page!!! ( similar view from other readers. )
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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars not truly a definitive biography, May 15, 2012
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This review is from: Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
I bought this book to find the details and straighten out the mysteries of Newton's anomalous persona, which you hear repeatedly in any historical account of physics; Newton commonly being accepted as the most determinative thinker on physics in western civilization. A 900 page book, you would think, would have it all. But there is quite a list of the most intriguing and common stories that are not not even noted. Among the most peculiar of these that is never mentioned here: Newton asserted that he never had sexual contact with any woman (or man one presumes.) He advised a different course to achieved this where others have failed; rather than seeking to put thoughts about women out of one's mind, and failing, one should think ceaselessly of something else (like calculus?), leaving no moment free for other thoughts. Neither is there any mention of the unbearable toothache Newton had, during which he re-thought gravity to drive away the pain. Etc.

Therefore if you want the kind of biographical background you would expect in a book-length biography, you need to read some other book besides.

What is this book really? Newton is such an important figure that he is a field of his own. Scholarly research papers take it for granted that one knows Newton details as one knows the sun rises, and well known material is not present. Instead, differences of interpretation, and neglected or newly found sources are the focus. I believe this book was originally that -the author spent over twenty years on research-, but then was re-worked for an audience other than the specialists.

There is a wealth of material in this book ... obviously. And the material present is written in a manner to be understood by lay persons, such as myself. Despite missing some of the most interesting or juicy material, there is plenty to reflect upon and reconsider, if thinking over things for yourself is your rationale for reading this, as it became mine: The culture of privilege and position of the 1600's; How geometry/astrology/alchemy was mutating into calculus/astronomy/chemistry due to philosopher Descartes' radical re-conception of what a "cause" properly is; That Newton spent almost all of his productive adult years researching alchemy (mostly) and religion (much less), but kept it secret (the alchemy is actually all in code -not mentioned here), to protect his position and his income, at the least, and prevent perhaps being prosecuted, not merely persecuted.

Some clap-trap psychology in places is annoying. I don't consider psychology clap-trap -far from it- but there is some specious quasi-psychology that the author outlines, suggesting it is worth further exploration by others. Some ordinary clinical psychology, in contrast, probably would have be enlightening.

Newton is known to have destroyed the vast quantity of his documents, the bulk at one period. The author's claim that it could only have been because they were worthless is mind-boggling. The obvious primary motivation for burning documents which you have kept for most of your life is to prevent the content from ever becoming known. One expects then that the destroyed documents would be the most revealing of the internal life of the mind and heart; the most emotionally troubling, embarrassingly revealing, petty, foolish, dishonest, scurrilous, incriminating, insane, and sexy.

March 10, 2013 >

I see that 3 out of 4 people rated my review not helpful, and I took pains to describe the book exactly as it is, so I have reworded for clarity, if that might be the problem.

Or perhaps people believe what I said contradicted the four stars rating. Let's put it this way: if you read for a lark, or for general information, this book is not for you. It is not an easy book, and from reading this book you will not know what most people who do know something about Newton do. But there is a lot of, I suppose, neglected material about what the author chose to include, even though typically neglecting the most well-known part completely. Immense consideration over a long period of time obviously went into this book and the profit I got from that is worth four stars. What was left out I believe is crucial, so five stars is not appropriate.
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Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library)
Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge Paperback Library) by Richard S. Westfall (Paperback - April 29, 1983)
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