Monday, August 24, 2015

Review: Isaac Newton

I have fond memories of James Gleick's excellent biography of Richard Feynman, so I checked out Isaac Newton from the library hoping for similar excellence. To my surprise, it wasn't nearly as good, though upon reflection, I shouldn't have been so surprised.

With Richard Feynman, many of his colleagues were still alive when Gleick wrote his book, and so we were able to get personal, up close stories about Feynman. Feynman also left behind tons of media from books to lectures to actual videos (such as from his famous exposition about the O-ring problem in the Challenger disaster).

By contrast, Newton was secretive, frequently writing his notes in cryptography, and separated from the modern age by 300 years: enough time for even his undeciphered writing to be cryptic and full of spelling that seems ancient by the standards of modern English. He never married and had no children, and so left behind few who could explain his personal mannerisms in an informal setting or know what he was really like.

Given these limitations then, Gleick does a reasonable job for the layman, explaining certain myths (such as the Newtonian conception of gravity) but at the same time not really providing sufficient context for important inventions such as Calculus and differential equations. The overall picture that emerges is complex, and Gleick does a good job of explaining to the reader that as the bridge between pre-modern pre-scientific Europe, Newton wasn't just the first scientist and mathematician, but also the last alchemist who also poisoned himself in the quest to turn lead into gold.

My criticism of the book is that Gleick doesn't really provide sufficient context for Newton's contemporaries. We get some tantalizing glimpses of Charles Boyle, and of course there's Leibniz, but none other than Leibniz are given serious treatment, so we don't really see the context in which Newton worked.

I recommend this book despite the faults, because of the limitations Gleick had to work with. Newton was (and arguably still is) an incredibly important figure in modern scientific enterprise, and it's a worthwhile read to see the origins of insights that came from the great man, as well as getting a (admittedly very limited) glimpse of the context in which he worked.

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