Title: Isaac Newton, by James Gleick
Motivation: Simple desire to read a book on Newton.
Completed: July 15, 2012 (#51)
Recommendation: Beautifully written. Strongly recommended.
Although a short at 288 pages, Mr. Gleick’s fine biographical study provoked A Superfluous Man to highlight no fewer than 42 passages on his Kindle. The arc of Newton’s career is widely known and need not be recapitulated here. Instead, let us feast on Mr. Gleick’s delectable prose:
Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after.
Of great interest in any Newton biographer, presumably, is how to dispose of the apple canard:
Voltaire did mention the apple, as did other memoirists, and their second- and third-hand accounts gradually formed the single most enduring legend in the annals of scientific discovery. And the most misunderstood: Newton did not need an apple to remind him that objects fell to earth. Galileo had not only seen objects fall but had dropped them from towers and rolled them down ramps. He had grasped their acceleration and struggled to measure it.
On the Newtonian Laws, demonstrating Mr. Gleick’s deft touch in elucidating scientific concepts:
Without further ado, having defined his terms, Newton announced the laws of motion. Law 1. Every body perseveres in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by forces impressed. A cannonball would fly in a straight line forever, were it not for air resistance and the downward force of gravity. The first law stated, without naming, the principle of inertia, Galileo’s principle, refined. Two states—being at rest and moving uniformly—are to be treated as the same. If a flying cannonball embodies a force, so does the cannonball at rest. Law 2. A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed. Force generates motion, and these are quantities, to be added and multiplied according to mathematical rules. Law 3. To any action there is always an opposite and equal reaction; in other words, the actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and always opposite in direction. If a finger presses a stone, the stone presses back against the finger. If a horse pulls a stone, the stone pulls the horse. Actions are interactions—no preference of vantage point to be assigned. If the earth tugs at the moon, the moon tugs back.
A fine book–well deserving of the praise it has received, including having been “shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.”