Book Review: Isaac Newton (White, 1997)

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Published on: 2014.06.14

Full Title: Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer
Author: Michael White
Year: 1997
Publisher: Perseus Books
ISBN 0-201-48301-7
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Wikipedia page on Michael White

◊ Summary

Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer is a complete biography of the famed name of science lore, including his religious leanings (Arianism) and his dabbling in alchemy, but beginning with the difficult circumstances of his childhood — father died before his birth, born prematurely, mother remarrying when he was young, and Newton being sent away at the age of three to live with his grandparents.

He didn’t learn mathematics (at all) until adulthood but soon became one of the world’s most gifted mathematicians, inventing modern calculus, and laying out the law of universal gravitation and the laws of motion that we all (should have) learned in science class in elementary school.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

The least tasteful thing about this book was how many inferences the author attempted to draw about Newton’s personal life, often starting with phrases like “There is no hard evidence of…” and ending with “…but we can assume that…”, which doesn’t seem historically responsible to me. Show me what you’ve got and let me do the assuming.

Much of this insinuation took place concerning two subjects: (1) Newton’s alleged sexual preference, and (2) how far his beliefs delved into the heretical and the occult.

As for the first, circumstances definitely point in that direction, enough for today’s neighborhood gossips to assume someone is gay, but not enough for a historical narrative — at least not presented in this book. Newton never married and in fact never seemed to show any affection toward any female other than his niece. He lived with the same man for almost two decades and shared intense experiences with another man later in life — the ending of which apparently contributed to a temporary mental breakdown.

As for the second, there is sufficient evidence that Newton believe in Arianism throughout his life, but very little that he practiced or studied the occult.

◊ What I Liked Most About It

Context. Context. Context.

So many biographies or histories I’ve read do not include historical context or explain names and phrases that pop into the narrative. The author of this book reversed that trend completely, spelling out things in detail (perhaps to lengthen the book?) He describes the state of science, chemistry, math, and other subjects at the time Newton came into his own, so the reader will know the significance of his achievements. When a new person is introduced to the reader, White describes them at length. I appreciated this more than anything.

◊ Overall Impression

Like many, I grew up with the impression of Isaac Newton as a clear-headed genius ahead of his time (a notion that he helped foster, especially during the latter half of his life). I didn’t realize he studied alchemy so extensively, or that he spent decades refining a chronology of biblical events — including future ones, like the Second Coming of Christ which he penciled in for 1948. I didn’t know he held to the belief that “the Ancients” knew more than we do, that there was some kind of secret knowledge base that could be rediscovered.

I was fascinated to learn about his feuds with other scientists of his time, often over who discovered what first. He had the curious habit of refusing to publish something but then later becoming infuriated when someone else would publish it before him.

He was among the first of modern scientists to use what’s known today as the Scientific Method — proving or disproving ideas with experimentation, instead of just sitting around reasoning about them.

In all, the book placed Newton in more of a human context — a fallible but driven person, without whom current scientific knowledge might be much further behind. Like many historical figures to whom we owe much, it’s inaccurate to place them on a pedestal and silly to ignore the faults that tie them to us.

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