A portrait of Isaac Newton, the man who changed our understanding of the universe, of science, and of faith is painted in this book. Isaac Newton was the chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion; he effectively discovered gravity; he salvaged the terms "time", "space", "motion" and "place" from the haze of everyday language, standardized them and married them, each to the other, constructing an edifice that made knowledge a thing of substance: quantative and exact. Creation, Newton demonstrated, unfolds from simple rules, patterns iterated over unlimited distances. What Newton learned remains the essence of what we know. Newton's laws are our laws. When we speak of momentum, of forces and masses, we are seeing the world as Newtonians. When we seek mathematical laws for economic cycles and human behaviour, we stand on Newton's shoulders. Our very deeming the universe as solvable is his legacy. This was the achievement of a reclusive professor, recondite theologian and fervent alchemist. A man who feared the light of exposure, shrank from controversy and seldom published his work. In his daily life he emulated the complex secrecy in which he saw the riddles of the universe encoded. His vision of nature was of its time; he never purged occult, hidden, mystical qualities. But he pushed open a door that led to a new universe.
As a schoolbook figure, Isaac Newton is most often pictured sitting under an apple tree, about to discover the secrets of gravity. In this short biography, James Gleick reveals the life of a man whose contributions to science and math included far more than the laws of motion for which he is generally famous. Gleick's always-accessible style is hampered somewhat by the need to describe Newton's esoteric thinking processes. After all, the man invented calculus. But readers who stick with the book will discover the amazing story of a scientist obsessively determined to find out how things worked. Working alone, thinking alone, and experimenting alone, Newton often resorted to strange methods, as when he risked his sight to find out how the eye processed images:
.... Newton, experimental philosopher, slid a bodkin into his eye socket between eyeball and bone. He pressed with the tip until he saw 'severall white darke & coloured circles'.... Almost as recklessly, he stared with one eye at the sun, reflected in a looking glass, for as long as he could bear.
From poor beginnings, Newton rose to prominence and wealth, and Gleick uses contemporary accounts and notebooks to track the genius's arc, much as Newton tracked the paths of comets. Without a single padded sentence or useless fact, Gleick portrays a complicated man whose inspirations required no falling apples. --Therese Littleton
"Can a talented but non-specialist science writer have any hope of contributing a serious, insightful biography of such a monumental man? In this case Gleick wins the gamble. His Isaac Newton is now the biography of choice for the interested layman…. The extraordinary breadth of Newton's interests is brilliantly delineated by Gleick. Newton the man emerges from the shadows."
--Owen Gingerich, The New York Times Book Review
" Accurate and readable… Gleick has gone back to [Newton's] original notebooks and brought them to life. For casual reader with a serious interest in Newton's life and work, I recommend Gleick's biography as an excellent place to start."
--Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books
"A slender, thoroughly researched account of Newton's life, written in a spare sometimes lyrical prose style… What's most fascinating about [Newton], and what makes Gleick's biography so intriguing, is that Newton just sort of came up with things by himself, as if out of the blue…And incredibly, he got the right answers."
--Farhad Manjoo, Salon.com
"What a great subject for James Gleick! Isaac Newton was a geniuses’ genius. His secret jottings changed the way we think about the universe, from the infinite to the infinitesimal. He was larger than life in his search for order, and he had heroic adventures in the realms of mystery and chaos. His behavior on this earth was as eccentric as his voyages beyond it were spectacular. Gleick has written the perfect short life."-- Jonathan Weiner, author of The Beak of a Finch
“The book has the magic of a wonderful laboratory experiment. James Gleick uses some complex components to make a brilliantly orchestrated and compelling narrative. His Isaac Newton is a masterpiece of clarity – so difficult to write, so easy to read.”
--Michael Holroyd, author of Works on Paper
"In addition to reflecting on Newton's genius, Gleick provides a fresh and brilliant portrait of his personality and life, the people who mattered to him, the influences which played on him, and the contexts of his achievements, giving us a vivid picture of this superhuman yet all-too-mortal man."
--Oliver Sacks, author of Uncle Tungsten
“[ISAAC NEWTON] is beautifully paced and very stylishly written: compact, atmospheric, elegant. It offers a brilliant and engaging study in the paradoxes of the scientific imagination. It’s more revealing than a falling apple!”
-- Richard Holmes, author of Coleridge
“After reading Jim Gleick’s beautifully written and intimate portrait of Newton, I felt as if I’d spent an evening by the fire with that complex and troubled genius.”
--Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams, The Diagnosis and Reunion
"Gleick's descriptions of Newton's scientific breakthroughs are clear and engaging… [ISAAC NEWTON] will bring this chapter in the history of science to a broader audience."
-- Publishers Weekly
"[An] engaging, concise biography of a monumental visionary and eccentric whose life was as remarkable as the universe he struggled to understand."
-- Kirkus Reviews
From the Back Cover