Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gleick on Isaac Newton

I enjoyed James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton (1642-1726). It only provides a very brief introduction to Newton’s life and work but it is a tantalising glimpse of one of the most important scientific figures in history. One of the reasons Newton is less discussed than others in recent times is that much of his scientific work has become ingrained into our everyday thinking – he certainly ushered in a new approach to science but also changed the way people think.

When we talk about the ‘momentum of a winning football team’ we are talking Newton-speak. The calculus that we learn as high school students was co-discovered independently by Newton and Leibnitz – it is impossible to imagine modern mathematics without it. Much of his work on optics is core knowledge these days. His contributions to astronomy were immense.

Newton’s long-standing interests in alchemy made sense to me since it was such experimentation that helped foster scientific revolutions. Likewise Newton’s Christianity seemed to dominate many aspects of his life though on his deathbed he refused the sacrament of the church.

Newton had tremendous powers of observation and an overwhelming compulsion to understand the world. He made contributions in many fields of mathematics and physics. I am not sure he was an overly likeable person – he was only ever recorded laughing once - but a supreme, cautious intellect. Very highly recommended as a starting point for understanding this remarkable man - a survey of complete reviews of the Gleick book is here.

I found the Wikipedia study of Newton to be useful companion reading – it added many points that Gleick missed.

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