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Newton: The Making of Genius [Paperback]

Patricia Fara
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 19 2004

Isaac Newton has become an intellectual avatar for our modern age, the man who, as even children know, was inspired to codify nature's laws by watching an apple fall from a tree. Yet Newton devoted much of his energy to deciphering the mysteries of alchemy, theology, and ancient chronology. How did a man who was at first obscure to all but a few esoteric natural philosophers and Cambridge scholars, was preoccupied with investigations of millennial prophecies, and spent decades as Master of the London Mint become famous as the world's first great scientist? Patricia Fara demonstrates that Newton's reputation, surprisingly limited in his day, was carefully cultivated by devoted followers so that Newton's prestige became inseparable from the explosive growth of science itself.

Newton: The Making of Genius is not a conventional biography of the man but a cultural history of the interrelated origins of modern science, the concept of genius, and the phenomenon of fame. Beginning with the eighteenth century, when the word "scientist" had not even been coined, Fara reveals how the rise of Isaac Newton's status was inextricably linked to the development of science. His very surname has acquired brand-name-like associations with science, genius, and Britishness -- Apple Computers used it for an ill-fated companion to the Mac, and Margaret Thatcher has his image in her coat of arms.

Fara argues that Newton's escalating fame was intertwined with larger cultural changes: promoting him posthumously as a scientific genius was strategically useful for ambitious men who wanted to advertise the power of science. Because his reputation has been repeatedly reinterpreted, Newton has become an iconic figure who exists in several forms. His image has been so malleable, in fact, that we do not even reliably know what he looked like.

Newton's apotheosis was made possible by the consumer revolution that swept through the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. His image adorned the walls, china, and ornamental coinage of socially aspiring British consumers seeking to identify themselves with this very smart man. Traditional impulses to saint worship were transformed into altogether new phenomena: commercialized fame and scientific genius, a secularized version of sanctity. Handsomely illustrated and engagingly written, this is an eye-opening history of the way Newton became a cultural icon whose ideas spread throughout the world and pervaded every aspect of life.


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From Publishers Weekly

This scholarly but accessible social history examines the reasons behind Isaac Newton's canonization as scientific genius, the modern-day equivalent, the author asserts, of secular sainthood. Today, schoolchildren know Newton as the pioneering empiricist who discovered the fundamental laws of nature by observing an apple fall from a tree, yet he was not a scientist. His goal was to understand God, and it was his obsession with alchemy, prophecy and ancient chronology from which his celebrated studies in gravity and optics emerged. In his lifetime, Newton's reputation had little reach outside a small circle of Cambridge scholars. By some, he was thought to be mentally unstable, even insane. By the 18th century, however, he was a national icon in England, and across the channel in revolutionary France his name had become synonymous with rational progress and egalitarian political ideals. Revelations about Newton's Faustian quest to unmask God are not uncommon biographical notes today, yet as Fara states, even Richard S. Westfall, whose biography Never at Rest is still the definitive one, perpetuates the secular myth by downplaying Newton's mysticism to focus anachronistically on his "scientific career." Fara contributes to Newton's biography by focusing on the roots of Newton's apotheosis. She examines how idealized portraits propagated Newton's public image, and how the marketing of Newtonian images outside academic circles commercialized science in the same way Einstein's face sells today. Throughout, Fara, a lecturer at Cambridge University, effectively employs the words and imagery of religious discourse to characterize the idealization and commercialization of Newton in the service of emerging secular politics and culture.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

Fara's unconventional biography explores this notion of fame-cum-sainthood, Newton's life, and the development of cultural identity spawned by a consumer revolution.

(Science News)

Fascinating.... Nothing seems beyond Fara's grasp in her scholarly examination of apples and alchemy, physics and fame, public relations and reputation.

(Kirkus Reviews)

An audacious and engaging examination of science, celebrity and the nature of genius.... The journey Fara takes us on is no less than the journey of science's progress in public esteem since the end of the 17th century and, as such, it is immensely valuable... beautifully done.

(National Post)

She simply and clearly describes the trajectory of Newton's image, both metaphorical and literal, in the form of portraits and coins....One would like to say that if Newton had not existed he would have to be invented, but what Fara shows us is that he has been invented.

(New Scientist)

The story of how a reclusive scholar who wrote mainly about alchemy and theology was transformed into history's greatest scientist, a popular hero, and an icon for our modern age.

(Library Journal)

This scholarly but accessible social history examines the reasons behind Isaac Newton's canonization as scientific genuis, the modern-day equivalent, the author asserts, of secular sainthood.

(Publisher's Weekly)

One of those books -- Paul Johnson's Birth of the Modern is another -- that sets you to thinking about the deep currents of thought that prevail in any given age.... An excellent survey, from all angles, of Newton's reputation.

(The New Criterion)

This is...the most efficient historical biographical scetch I have ever read.

(John Fraser National Post)

Fara offers a fascinating chronicle of the fate of the reputation of Newton from his own times to recent revisions... This volume is a pleasure to read.

(Choice)

The interested reader will discover that Newton has become an intellectual icon for our modern age not only by means of his extraordinary mathematical discoveries. Many other aspects of his life have been exploited to create the image of him. They are examined in this very interesting book.

(Massimo Galuzzi Mathematical Reviews)

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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I wonder what Isaac Newton really meant, when he included this line in a letter to Robert Hooke, in February 1676. Was it a generous statement of acknowledgement, or was it an unsubtle reference to Robert Hooke's stature? All we know for certain is that Newton and Hooke had a number of disagreements, including about the nature of light. As both Hooke and Newton are scientific heroes of mine, I'd prefer to read the statement positively.

We know so little about the Isaac Newton the person, and yet most of us know of him and his achievements. We don't really know what he looked like, and yet there are a number of differing images available. The accomplishments attributed to Newton in science and mathematics are significant. In his `Principia Mathematica', published in 1687, Newton reasons the universe in terms of a few differential equations. This is profound, but was not accessible to many. The publication of `Opticks' in 1704 had a more direct impact. In that work, Newton described the refraction of sunlight through a prism into a rainbow of colours. The arguments in this book had an immediate impact and its popularity caused greater attention to be paid to `Principia Mathematica'.

But this book is less about Newton's science and mathematics as it is about his impact on other thinkers. Ms Fara also investigates the different ways in which Newton's life and work have been interpreted over the past three centuries.

It is ironic that Newton, who never lost his Christian faith, had presented the Age of Reason with the tools to argue alternate views of the universe. Newton's many admirers included Thomas Jefferson, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and his mistress Emilie du Chatelet.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars As the author says, a biography it is not....... May 30 2006
By Bruce W. Turner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book was a surprise to me. As Fara points out, the work is not biographical nor intended to be. It appeals as an exhaustively researched treatment of 17th and 18th century academic and scientific life in western Europe, of which Newton is portrayed as a centrepiece.

Interestingly, there is considerable focus on public image, public perception, academic politics and international academic rivalry. Much work also goes into the realisation of Newton as indelible national hero....the statues, paintings, medallions , anniversary celebrations, etc. Entire academic careers rose or fell on whether one resided in the Newtonian camp or not, and a whole section of the book goes to discussion on the nature of genius itself. Whilst I was expecting to get a better personal picture of Newton the man, the book makes clear how difficult this may be, given that his life and work are now 3 centuries past. That, and the fact that countless biographies of Newton already exist, many painting quite different pictures of the man, each from the somewhat subjective brush of particular biographers.

Very readable, enjoyable and breathtakingly well researched.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How we changed Newton Nov. 8 2005
By A. G. Plumb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Most people see that Newton changed the world - creating a scientific world, a rational world, one free of superstition and the searching for vain outcomes (such as those of alchemy). There is no doubt that Newton's endeavours did bring a lot of this to pass. But, did he intend that? Newton was a complex character - part of which was an alchemist, part of which was a futurist basing his expectations on interpretations of Biblical verses.

In this book we learn how Newton's reputation changed, how Principia lead the world in its understanding of physics. Principia was less successful with metaphysics, which was eventually exposed by Einstein. But that same world turned a blind eye to other aspects of Newton - things that Newton himself took as seriously - perhaps even more so - than the physics on which his reputation now rests.

I took this book up because for a while I had been wanting to read more of the enigmatic character that Newton was. But this is not a biography. It is a component of the study of the history of science. I found it fascinating but the true Newton still waits for me somewhere else.

recommended other reading:

Ramunujan - Robert Kanigal

The Man Who Loved only Numbers - Paul Hoffmann
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars `If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants.' Sept. 13 2011
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I wonder what Isaac Newton really meant, when he included this line in a letter to Robert Hooke, in February 1676. Was it a generous statement of acknowledgement, or was it an unsubtle reference to Robert Hooke's stature? All we know for certain is that Newton and Hooke had a number of disagreements, including about the nature of light. As both Hooke and Newton are scientific heroes of mine, I'd prefer to read the statement positively.

We know so little about the Isaac Newton the person, and yet most of us know of him and his achievements. We don't really know what he looked like, and yet there are a number of differing images available. The accomplishments attributed to Newton in science and mathematics are significant. In his `Principia Mathematica', published in 1687, Newton reasons the universe in terms of a few differential equations. This is profound, but was not accessible to many. The publication of `Opticks' in 1704 had a more direct impact. In that work, Newton described the refraction of sunlight through a prism into a rainbow of colours. The arguments in this book had an immediate impact and its popularity caused greater attention to be paid to `Principia Mathematica'.

But this book is less about Newton's science and mathematics as it is about his impact on other thinkers. Ms Fara also investigates the different ways in which Newton's life and work have been interpreted over the past three centuries.

It is ironic that Newton, who never lost his Christian faith, had presented the Age of Reason with the tools to argue alternate views of the universe. Newton's many admirers included Thomas Jefferson, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and his mistress Emilie du Chatelet. Voltaire's admiration of Newton was part of an `Angolmania' that spread amongst the cultural and intellectual elite of France in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, a Romantic reaction had set in against Newton and science. In `Lamia' - John Keats wrote:

Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage
War on his temples. Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine--
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.

Three years earlier, Keats had agreed with Charles Lamb that Newton `had destroyed all the Poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.'

In the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes had this to say:

`Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians ... Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonder child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage... Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood... He regarded the Universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty--just as he himself wrapt the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate.'

This is an interesting book about Isaac Newton and his influence. It is is not a conventional biography of Isaac Newton: the facts of his life have frequently been disputed and his posthumous reputation has its own contradictions. This book left me wanting to know more about Newton's life, and also to read more of the books Ms Fara refers to.

`We can only view Newton's accomplishments and experiences through the refracting prism of a society that has itself been constantly changing.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Newton Dec 2 2009
By Rita Ogorman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is great book for anyone who is interested in going deeper than high school history. It is well written and takes you into the life of one of the greatest minds this world has known. I was surprised by my own ignorance. I thought he was a scientist. There was no such thing at the time. Newton was a philosopher of nature.
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