Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Secretive Genius


by Peter Ackroyd

When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation --
'T is said (for I'll not answer above ground
For any sage's creed or calculation) --
A mode of proving that the earth turn'd round
In a most natural whirl, called "gravitation;"
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.
Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
If this be true; for we must deem the mode
In which Sir Isaac Newton could disclose
Through the then unpaved stars the turnpike road,
A thing to counterbalance human woes:
For ever since immortal man hath glow'd
With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon
Steam-engines will conduct him to the moon.
Byron, Don Juan

Sir Isaac Newton died on this day in 1727. He was born on Christmas day 1642, the posthumous child of an illiterate yeoman farmer. His mother remarried and left him to be raised by his grandmother. At a local school, he distinguished himself by his inventiveness at creating toys and gadgets; it quickly became apparent he had no aptitude for farming. At his teacher’s urging, he was sent to Cambridge, where he so excelled in math that he was appointed a professor at the age of 26. His full genius bloomed during an involuntary vacation forced by the Great Plague of 1665. He experimented with prisms to uncover the nature of light; he worked up the essentials of calculus; and he laid the foundations for a theory of gravitation. Upon his return to the academic world, he began to publish some of what he had learned. Peter Ackroyd points out that Newton took his time to make his mark; indeed, he maintained a secretiveness regarding his work for much of his life. He researched and speculated on alchemy and theology, which thoughts he was probably just as wise not to commit to publication. (In fact, had his religious convictions become known, he would undoubtedly have had to resign his academic post.) He was contentious regarding his scientific opinions resulting in a number of professional feuds, with Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Gottfried Leibnitz in particular, that are perhaps the most regrettable blemish on his reputation. Peter Ackroyd provides the historical context to clearly delineate Newton’s salient character traits and make his greatest accomplishments clear to the modern reader. This is a good introduction to Newton in a compact biography of the great English scientist, the third in Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series.

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