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Review - Isaac Newton - James Gleick

 

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Newton makes a superb subject for popular science's blend of biography and science, and this is an excellent example. To this day, Newton remains incomparable in the breadth of his input to the development of science - plus he was a strange and complex character into the bargain.

We are, after all, talking about the man who not only pinned down the concept of gravity (and was the first to use the word in this context), but established the basic laws of motion, invented calculus, made wide-ranging discoveries on the nature of light, invented his reflecting telescope, etc. etc.

One of the reviewers on the cover of my (US) copy remarks that this is 'the biography of choice'. Actually, Newton is such a big subject that I have yet to come across a single popular science biography of the man that's big enough to really give the full picture. Gleick's relatively slim book gives a superb insight into Newton's physics and his pinnacle of achievement, the Principia. It is also very good on his work as Master of the Royal Mint and his theological oddities. But I found it strangely remote in terms of Newton's personality - a much better choice for that is White's The Last Sorcerer (which also covers his attempts in alchemy better). Similarly, Infinity makes a better job of untangling the calculus (Gleick doesn't even mention Bishop Berkeley, for example).

But don't take this as a negative. On the bits he does well, Gleick is the best around. This is a fine book and a very easy read. You just need to get more than one book to take in the scope of the truly remarkable Isaac Newton.

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Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007