S. Kumar & Company

Private Brilliance

S. Kumar

Isaac Newton
by
James Gleick

I doubt that I've met anyone (at least in the circles I go in) who hasn't heard of Isaac Newton. Such is the influence this man has had on the world and it's body of knowledge, as we know it today.

This book gives a very nice insight into the man's persona as well as his academic achievements that have remained unshakeable for the most part until now. Many of the subsequent great scientists who we all recognize immediately have built on the foundations created by this scientific genius. Even scientific inquiry as it is carried in the centuries subsequent to his work is based on his work and his methods. That is quite an accomplishment. For that he deserves quite a bit more credit than he receives. Not that he is ever looked upon as a minor contributor to science, compared to even people like Einstein. Such were his contibutions.

With all that, he never wanted the fame. In fact, James Gleick goes on to show how much he abhorred the idea of making his works known. He was essentially conducting his analyses and experiments all for himself and most of his writings were meant to be personal writings. Only very reluctantly made them available to others and the world.

He did this when there wasn't much choice as when his career and his ability to continue his work was at stake. Even when his work was at stake, he did the bare minimum in this regard and got away with a lot less than required due to his recognized accomplishments. He ended up with millions of words of work that didn't become known until the 20th century, nearly 3 centuries after his death. Imagine the impact he could have had if they had been available all along to all the other brilliant minds that have passed by since his time.

There was one one other thing that could get him to show off his work. That was when his ego and pride was involved. When people doubted his work or questioned his theories or tried to disprove them, he was very quick to respond. Many of those times, he responded anonymously and after a while stopped communicating with such people.

Gleick provides a revealing insight into his character and his work. As much space is spent showing his character as his discoveries and theories and his scientific interactions. The full implications of his work and the impact that it has had on the world is also very clearly laid out.

The target of this book is not a general audience. One has to have at least a limited scientific or engineering background to fully appreciate the man through this work. The impact of his work - what he threw out from past beliefs and what he established for certain and which have been used as a foundation for many others can be best appreciated by ones who can understand in general terms the topics being discussed. There is a quite a bit of specifics relating to science & philosophy here.

Even if one doesn't have the requisite background, one can appreciate it under certain conditions. One must be willing concede that the people whose theories he is disproving were considered to be giants in their fields as are the people who have subsequently used his work to build upon. Names like Galileo, Descartes who preceded him and Einstein who follwed him are all in the mix.

The writing style is not great, not shoddy to be sure. The content in this case makes up for it. If you are at all interested in Newton and his work and influence on society, it is a worthwhile read. Besides, at under 200 pages, you don't have much to lose and plenty to gain.

Biographies often are meant to show us how great minds work and how great people behave, both in private and public. They also show the negative side of people. From those perspectives, this is a very balanced work. Nothing is held back in terms of his personality and a great deal is covered with all the contributions. Take it as it is, it's the whole package. Just the way Newton was. And from that perspective, Gleick has succeeded quite well.


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