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Isaac Newton [Paperback]

James Gleick
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 8 2004 Vintage
Isaac Newton was born in a stone farmhouse in 1642, fatherless and unwanted by his mother. When he died in London in 1727 he was so renowned he was given a state funeral—an unheard-of honor for a subject whose achievements were in the realm of the intellect. During the years he was an irascible presence at Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton imagined properties of nature and gave them names—mass, gravity, velocity—things our science now takes for granted. Inspired by Aristotle, spurred on by Galileo’s discoveries and the philosophy of Descartes, Newton grasped the intangible and dared to take its measure, a leap of the mind unparalleled in his generation.

James Gleick, the author of Chaos and Genius, and one of the most acclaimed science writers of his generation, brings the reader into Newton’s reclusive life and provides startlingly clear explanations of the concepts that changed forever our perception of bodies, rest, and motion—ideas so basic to the twenty-first century, it can truly be said: We are all Newtonians.

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As a schoolbook figure, Isaac Newton is most often pictured sitting under an apple tree, about to discover the secrets of gravity. In this short biography, James Gleick reveals the life of a man whose contributions to science and math included far more than the laws of motion for which he is generally famous. Gleick's always-accessible style is hampered somewhat by the need to describe Newton's esoteric thinking processes. After all, the man invented calculus. But readers who stick with the book will discover the amazing story of a scientist obsessively determined to find out how things worked. Working alone, thinking alone, and experimenting alone, Newton often resorted to strange methods, as when he risked his sight to find out how the eye processed images:

.... Newton, experimental philosopher, slid a bodkin into his eye socket between eyeball and bone. He pressed with the tip until he saw 'severall white darke & coloured circles'.... Almost as recklessly, he stared with one eye at the sun, reflected in a looking glass, for as long as he could bear.

From poor beginnings, Newton rose to prominence and wealth, and Gleick uses contemporary accounts and notebooks to track the genius's arc, much as Newton tracked the paths of comets. Without a single padded sentence or useless fact, Gleick portrays a complicated man whose inspirations required no falling apples. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Gleick's most renowned writing falls into one of two categories: vivid character studies or broad syntheses of scientific trends. Here, he fuses the two genres with a biography of the man who was emblematic of a new scientific paradigm, but this short study falls a bit short on both counts. The author aims to "ground this book as wholly as possible in its time; in the texts," and his narrative relies heavily on direct quotations from Newton's papers, extensively documented with more than 60 pages of notes. While his attention to historical detail is impressive, Gleick's narrative aims somewhere between academic and popular history, and his take on Newton feels a bit at arms-length, only matching the vibrancy of his Feynman biography at moments (particularly when describing Newton's disputes with such competitors as Robert Hooke or Leibniz). As might be expected, Gleick's descriptions of Newton's scientific breakthroughs are clear and engaging, and his book is strongest when discussing the shift to a mathematical view of the world that Newton championed. In the end, this is a perfectly serviceable overview of Newton's life and work, and will bring this chapter in the history of science to a broader audience, but it lacks the depth one hopes for from a writer of Gleick's abilities.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Top-notch sci-tech writing Aug. 2 2003
Format:Hardcover
Gleik's book is an engaging synthesis of top-notch sci-tech writing and biography. But it lacks the same thing another genre best-seller--Galileo's Daughter-- does, at least for me. It gives no perspective on what might be called the moral status of Newton's ideas in light of the subsequent centuries of philosophical inquiry and scientific investigation.
In recognizing Newton and Galileo as giants of science we should also understand them to be figures of enormous influence in the West's positivist, mechanistic, scientistic worldview. They each had a powerful moral impact on the West. It can be seen not only in positive scientific advances, but also in the worst excesses and errors of the scientific enterprise. A book that sheds light on this aspect of Galileo's genius and that I greatly enjoyed is Wade Rowland's Galileo's Mistake.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Maybe Not What You are Looking For May 6 2006
Format:Paperback
If you want a book about the character of Isaac Newton, this is not the book for you. If you want a book about the scientific work of Newton, then this is the book for you. My intention was to lean about the personality of Newton; his childhood, eccentric behavior, social interactions, non scientific views. However, the book Isaac Newton was dominated by explanations of his theories and the history of the "shoulders" he stood upon. For someone more interested in the social sciences, this made for dull and thick writing which was hard to get through. The book did have interesting tid-bits about the man Newton; unfortunately they were few in number and seemed to be used as connectors between paragraphs explaining math and physics theories. I suppose if you were more interested in Newton's work than life this is a good book. But I was not so much interested in what brilliant works his mind produced as in what type of life produced his mind.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A universal mind July 12 2004
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
With almost poetic grace, Gleick portrays the life and thinking of history's most expansive mind. Works on Newton aren't as common as might be expected. The task of addressing such a monumental mentality is formidable, to say the least. Only the most ambitious or analytical could attempt it. Gleick's effort encompasses the major facets of Newton's life, including his academic, political and religious aspects. He avoids the modern approach of delving into Newton's psyche or recapitulating three centuries of scholarly disputation. Even the "falling apple" story is redrawn as Newton's realisation that apparent size compared with distance expressed a relationship needing explanation. The result is a clean, unobstructed view of a complex man - and his legacy.
From meagre beginnings Newton carved an expansive niche in European scholarship. His skills, noted early, brought him a Cambridge appointment at 27. Already showing great promise, he was a reluctant publisher. He sequestered himself in his rooms, later in a small cottage. He'd lived almost alone during his childhood, but his curiosity led him in many directions. The prism experiments, breaking sunlight with a prism, began his long career in what is now deemed "physics". Light's properties were the subject of great dispute, with Newton holding to emitted particles. Waves seemed to adhere to the Cartesian "vortices" which Newton found suspect. Playing with mirrors and lenses led to the reflecting telescope widely used today. Thinking about the heavenly bodies he observed led, of course, to his idea of gravitational attraction. Not a popular idea then, since such forces were disdained.
It's difficult to assess whether his delving into the facts of nature led to his personal isolation, or the reverse holds.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't capture enough of the inner-Newton May 17 2004
Format:Hardcover
There were moments in this book, but overall I was left a bit disappointed by the author's lack of insight into the man himself. I have always held Newton in awe, and wondered what his IQ might have measured. Perhaps what I was looking for in this book was not the author's intent in focus. I've read many scientific books that detail the theories and history of Newton's contributions. In this book I hoped to find more of an inner glimpse into Newton's psyche. What it did reveal was disillusioning--Newton was apparently petty, jealous, and socially inept. For those who are looking for a biography, this doesn't cut the mustard. For those who are not already familiar with the scientific thought of the day and with Newton's accomplishments, this book will be much more satisfying.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Honesty meets rationalism April 20 2004
Format:Hardcover
I found this book hard to follow in places, but because James Gleick places you so close to Isaac Newton, I found it impossible to give up reading it. According to other reviews, the struggles between Newton and the philosophy of Descartes, and the personality of Hooke, and the possible plagarism of Leibnitz, are not new or unknown. They were to me. Another thing that I didn't understand about the times that Newton lived in was how his society and culture was so steeped in mysticism and the occult. Newton set his philosophy apart from the rest by strictly defining all of the terms that he used. So, while religions and other faith philosophies thrive on the dishonesty of wordplay, science, as defined by Newton's approach, rules the day.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Isaac Newton Lite March 22 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Despite its title, this slim volume is no biography. While interestng and well-written, it is really an extended profile, with nearly a third of the book consisting of notes and acknowledgements (in a format no magazine would likely publish). At its listed price, it is no value.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said 'Let Newton be'...
At this time of the year, I select a few books about diverse subjects and re-read them with the hope that new insights will occur that I missed previously. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Robert Morris
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing for a big fan of Genius by Gleick
I loved Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman, "Genius". So my expectations for this book on possibly the most important mathematical and scientific figure were very... Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2004 by Ronald Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars Great for Physics Students as well..
I am majoring in Physics at Ball State University. Looking to strenghen my historical background of Physics, I decided to start with the earliest scientists and read my way through... Read more
Published on Feb. 16 2004 by David H. Wilkerson
5.0 out of 5 stars Enigmatic Newton
Over 350 years biographies on Newton have dealt with facts or speculations about his heretical beliefs and personal oddities. Gleick has achieved something astonishingly different. Read more
Published on Jan. 31 2004 by Pieter Wagener
4.0 out of 5 stars a newtonian world
I was not immediately aware of the philosophical "dual" between Newton and Decartes re. the force behind planetary and universal motion. Read more
Published on Jan. 16 2004 by T. Kepler
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating coverage showing how Newton's genius
James Gleick's previous titles have focused on how ideas and theories can transform perceptions; Isaac Newton narrows the concept even further, providing the story of a scientist... Read more
Published on Jan. 9 2004 by Midwest Book Review
4.0 out of 5 stars The Gleick we Like is back
There was a time when James Gleick could do no wrong. Chaos, in 1987, established Gleick as the nonfiction writer who understood abstract science, but more importantly, could... Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2004 by Erik Ketzan
5.0 out of 5 stars "Voyaging through strange seas of Thought"
This is a concise but comprehensive biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick, a scientific writer with an extraordinarily lucid narrative prose style. Read more
Published on Dec 22 2003 by A.J.
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