James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” a great introduction

After reading Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle, I became very interested to learn more about some the historical figures around whom the story revolved – Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, John Wilkens, Christopher Wren, …, and Isaac Newton, the founders and early members of the Royal Society. Given my interest in physics, optics, and math, especially Isaac Newton.

Fortunately for me, James Gleick‘s biography of Newton, simply titled Isaac Newton, was published earlier that year (2003). Gleick was not new to me – both Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, have a place on my bookshelves – so I had high hopes for his biography of Newton. I was not disappointed.

Chances are you’ve heard of Isaac Newton, if for nothing else than the fact that he came up with the idea of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree. (Which, by the way, is a vast oversimplification.) You may have even heard of his 3 laws of motion or that he invented – some might say discovered – the calculus. You may even think that he invented calculus so he could figure out his laws of motion. (As it turns out, he used geometry.)

Newton didn’t actually publish – or care to publish – his work in mathematics, or anything else, until someone else published similar work. Unlike the rest of the fellows of the Royal Society, who were interested in sharing their new found knowledge as much as possible, Newton experimented and discovered and wrote to satisfy his own curiosity, not that of anyone else.  Only in the very recent past have the many documents of Newton come to light, and it is through these many documents that Gleick tells this unique story of arguably the greatest mind ever.

Considering the subject, the book is relatively short with just under 200 pages of main text and about 50 pages of notes. It is a pretty quick read, though I did find that flipping back and forth to the end notes tended to slow me down. And if you are looking for detailed discussion and analysis of the actual content of Newton’s various writings, this is not your book.

If, however, you want to gain an understanding of what drove Newton, of why he wanted to figure things out, and get a glimpse into his incredible mind, this is an excellent book with which to begin.