Shedding Moonlight on the Real Newton; ISAAC NEWTON by James Gleick (Fourth Estate, [Pounds Sterling]15)
Byline: HEPHZIBAH ANDERSON
IT IS A FACT, shaming but true, that in my deeply unscientific mind, the genius of one of Britain's most famous scientists is summed up by a single piece of fruit. I am certain that I'm not alone: in the centuries that followed his death in 1727, Isaac Newton has grown almost as indelibly linked to the apple as Adam and Eve.Yet as James Gleick's thrillingly good biography makes clear, this is just another of the serial inaccuracies that cluster about the much mythologised Newton. During his lifetime, the great scientist described his epiphany in the garden of his Woolsthorpe family home to four or five people, but the apple was, in fact, twinned inseparably in his thinking with the Moon. And nor did Newton grasp universal gravitation in a flash: it would be decades before he made public what he suspected about gravity.
Elsewhere, Gleick reconsiders Newton's scientific feud with Robert Hooke and his secret alchemical writings; he describes his struggle with self-imposed celibacy and the 'sleepless fervour' with which he explored his own Christian faith; and he probes, too, the ambition that eventually lured him from his Trinity College eyrie to a post at the Royal Mint and a smart, Jermyn Street address that he furnished almost entirely in crimson (he even slept in a crimson mohair bed).
Gleick's book numbers fewer than 200 pages, but his notes fill half as many again; it is scrupulously researched. He paints a series of compelling, impressionistic portraits: the lonely schoolboy who scratched not only his initials, but geometric figures and circles with arcs onto the wall of his garret. …