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Book Review: Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Isaac NewtonIsaac Newton by James Gleick

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I read this to compliment my reading of Quiet by Susan Cain, thinking that studying the life of one of the most famous introverts will give me greater insight.

But all James Gleick provides is a cursory summary of Newton’s work and hardly touches on his personal life and not at all on his character or personality. The book is also a history of the enlightenment age, the growth of the Royal Society, of the rivalries that drove its growth, and the role they played in transmission of information.

How can one understand a man willing to fill millions of words worth of pages with new and imaginative thrusts into the unknown, with no intention to publish and only giving them away in reluctant small portions; a man who took 30 years to publish his greatest work. Even after he became famous, he resorted to publishing under the cloak of anonymity about his own works as well as his critics.

Newton was told by his well-wishers that this withholding of his work only helped in losing recognition for himself and benefit for others. This was sadly illustrated when Leibniz published his own version of Calculus – this prompted Newton to finally bring out his own better and earlier version and start a fiery rivalry which overshadowed their achievements and constricted the growth of mathematics for almost a decade. But one good thing did came out of this – Newton started bringing out texts that he had kept hidden till then.

He was also a dedicated pursuer of biblical and ancient texts, convinced that the ancients knew secrets hidden in these symbolisms. Another strange fact was that Newton made more money from being in charge of the public money minting office than from his scientific enquiries – He was the one who standardized England’s currency and made major contributions to economics and public policy too.

The most intriguing part of the book is when Gleick details out Newton – The Alchemist, probably the greatest of the esoteric order. It was another of the various facets of his life and enquiry that he never made public and came to light only years after his death. This was in fact the cause of his death – the mercury poisoning that resulted from his fascinated constant handling of ‘quicksilver’ which he believed to be the essence of all metals.

While I cannot say that the book was of much use in aiding an understanding of Newton, the man, or that it was a detailed history of his thoughts and works, at the very least, I will never talk about how modern science killed Newtonian Physics. His vision of the universe was as metaphysical as the latest quantum advances, even though the most critics he ever had in his life was for these very metaphysical elements in his ‘Optics’.

He was careful to only present to the public those ideas which he could back up by experimentation, but this does not mean that this powerful mind did not explore and push the same boundaries that we now grapple with in the vast eternities of his solitude.

He was a scientist, alchemist, philosopher, epistemologist, economist, a theologian, and the last of the magicians; combining and distilling all of this vast knowledge into the simple truths that we all know today. Newton was a great of the modern age, not of a quaint age which we have surpassed as we like to imagine.

I would like to agree with Byron as he sang, “Man fell with apples; and with apples rose.”

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Posted by on March 10, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Chaos: Making a New Science By James Gleick

Chaos: Making a New ScienceChaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chaos: The Tip of a Giant Iceberg

Gleick only gives an introduction about the actual science and beauty of Chaos. Instead he focusses on giving a poetic account of the scientists who first stumbled on it and their great surprise and the struggles form the narrative crux of the book.

While some may say this makes it a less informative book, for me this made it one of the most intriguing non-fiction books I have read. Gleick’s way of telling the stories makes the reader share in the wonder and incredulity of each pioneer as he stumbled upon this hitherto unguessed truth of nature. Each stumbling step, each misguided attempt and every remonstration expected in such a new endeavor is traced out in loving detail and these scientists come alive as insecure dramers daring to step beyond the realms of the possible. Gleick makes heroes out of Mandelbrot Benoît and the others and weaves an otherworldly charm around their ideas. This made the book pure poetry for me.

The amazing pictures and illustrations and the quotes accompanying each chapter all add to the feeling of reading an art text book rather than a science book. And this ultimately was the real achievement of Gleick in writing Chaos – He manages to convey to us that this is the first foray of science into the realm of art – not just of explaining art but of being art.

But ultimately none of this is going to be the lasting impact of this book. The reading pleasure and the hero worship of these daredevils is transient after all. For me, the real impact is that it has changed the way I look at the ordinary everyday world – the leaves, the trees, the pebbles, the pattern on the peels of an orange – everything is strangely magnified and beautiful now. I see the poetry of constant motion and evolution everywhere and I can feel the science of Chaos intuitively as I take my long walks. I can see Strange Attractors and Fractals and unstable equilibriums in the most mundane places. And this is the greatest gift of the book.

PS. Don’t miss out on the exhaustive endnotes. They are indispensable.

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Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry

 

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