Isaac Newton by James Gleick

A short story about the life of a troubled genius
Click to follow

To some he was a giant among giants and a worthy contender for the title of most famous Briton. To others he was a troubled genius who found it difficult to have relationships with other people. As well as single-handedly laying the foundation stones of modern science, Isaac Newton was an alchemist and Biblical mystic. He was an eccentric student in his youth and ill-tempered in old age. If anything can be said for certain about Newton - other than his genius - it is that he remains an enigma.

Born in a country village to an illiterate farmer who died before he was born, the young Newton was lucky enough to go to school. Virtually abandoned by his mother, who had remarried, Newton boarded with the apothecary in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham, who imparted more than a passing interest in potions and books.

A sad and lonely boy, Newton was a misfit at school but his intelligence was recognised and he gained entry to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a low-ranking student who had to serve his aristocratic contemporaries. Undaunted, he began to explore the capabilities of his own mind, which soon questioned Cartesian certainties.

As plague ravaged England, Newton returned home and acquired a 1000-page "waste book" where he wrote down his thoughts. Aged 24, he wrote only for himself. The plague year of 1665 was the year of Newton's transfiguration. "Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world's paramount mathematician," writes James Gleick.

Back at Cambridge he spent days in his room. One day he wrote that out of too much study and passion "cometh madnesse". He nevertheless devoured ideas and took a keen interest in alchemy, unknowingly poisoning himself with mercury.

The transmutation of base metal into gold was seen as a kind of spiritual purification - an act of God. It should come as no surprise that Newton took a zealous interest in theology, secretly trying to disprove the notion of the Holy Trinity that was the bedrock of Christian teaching. At the same time, he built the first reflecting-mirror telescope, led an assault on the prevailing view of light and described the force of gravity.

His magnum opus was the Principia, in which Newton laid down his three laws of motion, which became the foundation of modern physics. The Principia was soon judged to be among the most important works ever published.

What is wonderful about this short book is that it leaves you hungry for more insight into the man who changed the course of science. Gleick tells the tale like the professional storyteller he is. The only criticism is that he tells it too well and too briefly. I wanted to know more.