Who else could have constructed the basis for modern science out of an apple? Sir Isaac Newton, the celebrated genius behind the Principia Mathematica
, lived inside his head--but not so much as to make his story dull. Mathematician and writer David Berlinski takes a new tack on the man's biography by approaching it through his work. Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World
does explore Newton's strange childhood and eventual career in government, but it stays largely focused on the Cambridge years and especially on the development of the Principia
Berlinski's uniquely impressionistic prose is perfect for his subject, whose penchant for withdrawal, depression, and misanthropy has driven many writers to despair. He instead fills the reader with visceral revulsion for the plague and ecstatic delight in a perfect English summer day before turning to intellectual matters. The author's knack for explaining tricky matters of mechanics is awe-inspiring; he moves with ease between captivating metaphor and precise mathematical language. Reading the Principia, even in English translation, is more of a chore than a delight, but Newton's Gift is precisely the opposite. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Isaac Newton (1642-1721) invented or coinvented calculus, discovered gravity and organized physics around mathematical laws. These and other findings in math and optics established him as the great mind of his age. Retiring, introspective and sometimes difficult, he also devoted much of his time to fine points of Christian theology. Known for hit books about math, Berlinski (A Tour of the Calculus; The Advent of the Algorithm) devotes this compact, engaging and readable volume to Newton's life, mind and accomplishments. Mixing snapshots of Sir Isaac's life and times with explanations of what the great man discovered, Berlinski hopes to produce not a detailed biographical record but "a sense of the man" and of how his mind worked. Berlinski's prose adapts with equal ease to historical background and to mathematical explanations: he's sometimes glib, but often a pleasure to read. (The text includes only the barest, most necessary graphs and equations: an appendix goes into greater detail.) The volume draws clean connections between Newton's works and his life, and links both to big questions dear to Berlinski: Did Newton inaugurate two centuries of attempts to explain all of life through math and physics? If he did, how? Are those attempts ending now? And how, exactly, does math relate to physicsAor to anything else in the world? Some readers will engage with Berlinski as he explores these philosophical tangents; others will simply enjoy his explication of Newton, whom Berlinski very plausibly labels "the last great natural philosopher whose vision about the world can be expressed in an intuitive way"Anot to mention "the largest figure in the history of western thought." (Oct.)
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