Friday, October 14, 2016

Simple Book Review: Isaac Newton (Giants of Science)

Giants of Science: Isaac Newton (2006) by Kathleen Krull

What qualities best characterize Isaac Newton? How about secretive, vindictive, withdrawn, obsessive and – most definitely – genius! This book give a compelling portrait of Newton, the bitter-sweet contradictions and all, but nevertheless a story about a man who was and is known as the greatest scientist of all time. He was born on January 1642 (some say 1643) as a premature infant “so tiny that no one expected him to make it,” writes Krull. His father died three months earlier before he was born, his mother deserted him (married again) and he was under the care of his grandparents until he went to Grantham Grammar School and soon entered Cambridge University. As youngster, he was known as absent-minded and unsociable. “From childhood on, much of his time was spent silent and alone. Thinking. Always thinking.” Many biographers assume that Newton suffered a mental illness known as bipolar (or manic depressive).

Newton was very curious and inventive. In young age he learned about herbs, studied Greek and Hebrew, logic, arithmetic, geometry, Biblical studies, very skilful with his hands, experimenting with kite (he don’t consider it as playing kite though), creating a miniature windmill, studying the sun, the moon, the planets and the rivers, taught himself about catching birds, melting metal, making fireworks, learn how to draw, experimenting with sheep’s blood to make inks, drying herbs and berries to make portions, etc. As he grow older, he have massive appetite for physics, astronomy and mathematics. In fact, to figure out some scientific explanations, he invented a new branch of math called calculus as we know it today [And invented a better telescope to study astronomy and popularizing “the scientific method” to the world of science]. Once, he almost blinded his eyes when he looked straight to the sun and poking his eye ball with needle to study optics and colours.  

Newton loves to read books. He devoured books by Plato, Aristotle, John Milton, Nicolaus Copernicus, John Bate, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, his own lecturer, Isaac Barrow, and many more. The only man that I can think of being so curious to study everything is Leonardo da Vinci. “I never knew him to take any recreation or pastime either in riding out to take the air, walking, bowling, or any other exercise whatever,” witnessed his assistant, “thinking all hours lost that was not spent in his studies.” Here are some sad things about Newton: he have very few friends (maybe close to none), very sensitive to people’s criticisms (such as from Robert Hooke’s), and probably never had any, in his lifetime, serious relationships with anyone (people sometime accused him as homosexual, but I don’t think so).

But all of these pale in comparison with his greatest success namely, the creation of his chief work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica also simply known as Principia Mathematica or Mathematical Principles explaining elliptical orbits, the gravitational force and more. His second great book is Opticks which mainly deals with the property of light. Because of these ingenious discoveries, John Locke, English philosopher, thought of him as a god. Alexander Pope, a poet composed, “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” In later years, he became obsessed with alchemy, especially “the processes by which one substance changes into another” (maybe due to the fabled Philosophers’ Stone which was believed to have the power to turn worthless metals into gold). This is somewhat weird interest of his.

What amazed me, even though he is the physicist of the physicists, he believes in the existence of God. God was never out of Newton’s genius mind. Krull writes nothing he discovered ever shock his faith. “In the absence of any other proof,” Newton claimed, “the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence” [Btw, he doesn’t believe in the Trinity, only God the Father]. Because of his faith, no surprise he was also obsessed in the interpretation of Biblical passages, especially, with the idea of the end of the world [Newton predicted that year 2060 is the end of the world. Very safe prediction indeed]. So many things I learned from this book, too much that I may bore you, but let Newton end this review on himself:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

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