(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

No student of Western science, or indeed, Western culture, would challenge the assertion that Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most important figures in the development of Western science. David Berlinski makes a somewhat more expansive, although quite defensible and unoriginal claim. For him, Newton “is the largest figure in the history of western science” and “Newtonian mechanics is not only the first, but the greatest, of scientific theories.” By intermixing an overview of Newton’s life—emphasizing oddity of character over events—with a nontechnical analysis of portions of Newton’s masterpiece, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687; The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1729), Berlinski hopes to persuade readers of the power, impact, and ultimate influence of the English scientist’s insights. He argues that Newton’s vision of the world—a mechanical world governed by simple mathematical laws—has set the research agenda in the physical sciences for three centuries and continues to do so even today.

To understand Newton is not easy. There are a number of hurdles. First, his mathematics is difficult. After all, Newton was the codiscoverer of calculus, and he used it freely in his Principia. Even if the reader is comfortable with college calculus (and not many are conversant with differential equations), the terminology and notation used by Newton has been archaic for over two centuries. Therefore, both a simplification and a translation (of both the mathematics and the Latin of the Principia) is necessary if Berlinski is to reach a modern, nonspecialist audience. Berlinski is up to the challenge and rewrites Newton’s insights in modern but simplified notation. He offers three different modes of explanation to the reader so as to render Newton’s mathematics more understandable: words, symbols, and diagrams. Supplementing the explanations in the body of the book is an appendix supplying equations, definitions, and derivations requiring no mathematics beyond algebra. The result is a volume a bright high school student could understand.

Newton’s Gift does not fit neatly into any single category of nonfiction. There are no new insights, either scientific or historical. Berlinski explicitly and accurately denies that he has written either a biography or a full exposition of Newton’s contributions to physics. Perhaps half the book is concerned with the life of Newton, but the coverage is sketchy and spotty, emphasizing Newton’s quirkiness. The other half of the book is a discussion of Newton’s mechanics, explicitly ignoring, except in passing, Newton’s experimental work in optics. The dust jacket describes the book as “an appreciation of Newton’s greatest accomplishment.” This is perhaps the most accurate description possible. By carefully picking and choosing amongst Newton’s multifaceted scientific work and the details of Newton’s life, Berlinski has constructed his personal vision of Newton. The contrast between the eccentric, very seventeenth century man and the timeless mathematical explanations serves to highlight the rational, mathematical side of Newton. Berlinski appreciates Newton’s contributions and wants everyone else to do the same.

As a nontechnical explanation of Newton’s mechanics, the work is very successful. Berlinski had proven in such earlier books as A Tour of the Calculus (1995) and The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea That Rules the World (2000) that he can explain esoteric mathematics in a manner that is understandable by the mathematically challenged, or at least those who were not students of calculus. In Newton’s Gift, four chapters comprising some forty pages form the core of the popular exposition of scientific thought. These chapters show Berlinski at his best. He reviews Newton’s three laws of motion and the two laws of time and space, translates Newton’s geometrical explanations into simplified vector notation, analyzes Newton’s concept of gravity, and summarizes and explains the seven propositions which form the basis of the Newtonian system of the world. By focusing on Newton the theoretical or mathematical physicist rather than Newton the experimental physicist, Berlinski plays to his own strengths. The words that Berlinski uses to describe Newton’s...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)