Tannenbaum and Stillman successfully convey a sense of Newton’s cleverness at practical invention, and they sketch in the salient features of his magnificent accomplishments in mathematics, the theory of gravitation, and optics. Newton’s inventiveness first appeared when he was boarding with the Clarkes. He spent hours observing the construction of a nearby windmill and then astonished the Clarkes with a model that he had carved, complete with a fan that was powered by a mouse running on a tiny treadmill. He frightened the villagers by flying kites containing lighted candles, and he delighted the Clarkes by carving a four-foot-high clepsydra, or water clock, which they could point to with great pride. The inventor’s crowning achievement came years later when he built the first reflecting, as opposed to refracting, telescope.
This biography explores Newton’s two greatest achievements, the invention of the method of fluxions (or differential calculus, as it is commonly known) and the formulation of the laws of gravity, which had their origin in his private studies during his student days. In Newton’s day, comets were still mysterious phenomena, and even Newton could not predict their paths with only Euclidean geometry and René Descartes’ algebra. Thus was born a new system of mathematics, fluxions, from the Latin fluxus, meaning “change.” At about the same time the German mathematician-philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz...
(The entire section is 587 words.)