Form and Content

Beulah Tannenbaum and Myra Stillman organize their charmingly anecdotal biography Isaac Newton: Pioneer of Space Mathematics into nine chapters that focus on the important stages in the great scientist’s career. Newton was one of those dominant minds who emerge from an obscure background and leave the world greatly changed. Born on Christmas Day, 1642, to Hannah Ayscough Newton of Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, England, Newton was such a small, weak baby that his survival was not expected. His father, Isaac Newton, Sr., had already been dead almost three months. When young Isaac’s mother remarried in 1646, she went to live at her husband’s home, and Newton was reared at Woolsthorpe by his grandmother.

In 1654, Newton went to Grantham to board with the apothecary Mr. Clarke and his wife, an old friend of his mother, and to attend the local grammar school. There he made a lifelong friend of Catherine Storey, Mrs. Clarke’s young daughter by her previous marriage. Eleven years later, Newton abandoned his plan to marry Catherine and chose a Cambridge scholar’s life instead.

As a student, Newton was not always attentive, but his abilities were such that his mother arranged for him to enter the University of Cambridge in 1661. Newton was a sizar at Cambridge; that is, he earned his keep by working as a servant and errand boy for the tutors. Dr. Isaac Barrow, England’s leading mathematician at the time, was the ideal mentor for Newton, and by 1668 he was a Major Fellow with the degree of master of arts. A year later, Barrow resigned, and Newton assumed his appointment as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. Two decades later, with great accomplishments behind him, Newton was one of the university’s most famous scholars and, in 1696, was awarded the post of Warden of the Mint. Finally, on April 16, 1705, Queen Anne made the former sizar a Knight of the Realm.

By then more than comfortable, Newton took up a new residence at St. Martin’s Street, where his niece Catherine Barton, the daughter of his half sister Hannah, kept house for him and delighted him with her friendships with the London literati. In 1725, Newton was persuaded to move to the more salubrious countryside of Kensington, but he could not refrain from trips to London. After one particularly exhausting journey, he died in Kensington on March 20, 1727.