(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Isaac Newton was the most famous scientist of his generation. One of his major accomplishments was the application of the law of gravity to the motion of planets, the path of comets, and the influence of the moon on ocean tides. He also wrote a comprehensive book on optics which corrected numerous earlier mistaken ideas about light. He developed the mathematics of differential and integral calculus. He carried out extensive chemical experiments and did biblical research on the concept of the Trinity but chose to keep these findings hidden from publication. After age fifty, he became politically active as a member of Parliament, was appointed by King James I to oversee the coinage of money, was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705, and became president of the Royal Society for some twenty years. At his death, he received a state funeral and was entombed at Westminster Abbey.

James Gleick quotes a memorable statement attributed to Newton after he had become famous: “I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Such an expression of modesty from a man of tremendous accomplishments and the recipient of the highest honors is remarkable. In this biography, however, Gleick gives a more human portrait of Newton, showing him sometimes involved in petty quarrels with fellow scientists, embellishing his own reputation, and reluctant to admit errors in his work.

Isaac Newton was born in 1642 at Woolsthorpe, a small village some hundred miles north of London. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother remarried soon after, leaving the young child to be raised by his grandmother. During his youth, England was torn by a civil war, the so-called Great Rebellion, with roaming bands of mercenary troops plundering the countryside for supplies. The monarchy eventually was reestablished after the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658. Newton learned to read and write at a country school. At home he built a sundial that was precise enough to tell the time of day to within fifteen minutes.

From ages ten to sixteen Newton attended school at Grantham, about eight miles from home, where he lived in the house of the local apothecary as a boarder. He is portrayed as a curious child, building a scale model of a water-powered mill that allowed him to study how gears, levers, and pulley wheels worked. A small notebook kept by Newton at this age has survived to modern times, showing his developing interests: geometrical figures, a water clock, kite flying, Latin phrases, and a word list of more than two thousand nouns. Gleick quotes numerous primary and secondary sources of biographical information about Newton in sixty pages of endnotes.

At age sixteen, Newton was called home by his mother to manage the land and tend to the farm animals. He was negligent in his duties, however, preferring to read books while fences went unrepaired and animals got out to a neighbor’s land. His Grantham schoolmaster intervened to get him admitted to Cambridge University in June of 1661. There he was introduced to Aristotle’s classical worldview but also heard about the theoretical possibility that the earth moves in an orbit around the Sun. Newton began keeping a notebook with questions about many topics: How can a cannonball continue to move in flight when nothing is pushing it; what causes the ocean tides; does matter fill all space or can there be a vacuum; what is light and how does it travel through space? He was not satisfied with traditional answers to such questions. Aristotle had justified disagreements with his teacher by saying, “Plato is my friend, but truth is my greater friend.” Newton wrote this same aphorism into his notebook but substituted Aristotle for Plato. In his third year at Cambridge, Newton came under the influence of Isaac Barrow, a newly appointed professor of mathematics. He attended Barrow’s lectures on Euclidian geometry and was introduced to algebraic equations. In his private notebook Newton set mathematical problems for himself such as finding the tangent to a curved line, a familiar type of problem assigned in a modern calculus course.

In 1665, when Newton was twenty-three and in his fourth year of study at Cambridge, an outbreak of plague started in London. It...

(The entire section is 1811 words.)