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New book shows Newton was a troubled genius

December 10, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Seldom does one encounter such lavish praise offered to a human being as that given to Isaac (later, Sir Isaac) Newton. His accomplishments in natural philosophy — as science was then called — fully justify these generous gifts of praise. The renowned British poet Alexander Pope is hardly to be matched in his recognition of the intellectual power of this student of the universe.“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,“God said Let Newton be! And all was light.”British author Peter Ackroyd has a formidable record of publications, which include some of the most creative writers in England’s history. William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and Thomas Moore are several on his distinguished list. His most recent, “Newton,” is a worthy addition to professional successes. In this small volume, one can get a clear picture of this multitalented genius at his best and his worst.Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 in an obscure village in Lincolnshire, England, from a family of modest means. He was deserted by his mother when he was only 3 years old and was, for some years, raised by his maternal grandmother. This has led biographers to suggest that this abandonment might have fostered his lifelong tendency toward great insecurity, inability to have but few close attachments to others, a suspicious and secretive behavior and a capacity for anger and aggression toward those whom he perceived to be his opponents. He became involved in several highly charged confrontations with those who challenged his claims or actions. Newton attended Cambridge University (Trinity College) at age 19 in 1661 and immediately made an impression on his professors. Indeed, Newton himself was of the opinion that he knew more about mathematics than his professor. Within several years, Newton made advances in optics and cosmology and invented differential calculus. Moreover, at the age of 27, he replaced his former teacher as the Lucasian professor of mathematics. During this period, Newton also began a lifelong interest in alchemy — the art of turning ordinary metals into gold — and an intense attraction to the study of books of Daniel and Revelations. At the same time, he was obsessed with his own program of experimental and theoretical science. As was his nature, Newton was driven to the point that he deprived himself of rest, food and sleep.Newton is best known for his discoveries relative to the nature of light, the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. All of his discoveries were supported with records of experiments and the mathematical basis for his claims. He asserted that “natural philosophy should not be founded on metaphysical opinion, but rather on experiment.” His biographers point out that Newton did not live by that rule.Some mention must be made of Newton’s monumental book, “Principia Mathematica.” In explaining the nature of gravity, Newton wrote that he did not pretend to know the cause of gravity and that he had supplied the mathematics rather than the physics of that phenomenon. No matter, one of his associates stated that Newton supposed that “Gravity had its foundation only in the arbitrary will of God.”In later years, Newton became the master of the mint for the government. According to reports, he was a very able officer, making many reforms in the production of coins and in the means to discover counterfeiters. Newton moved to London and lived a more genteel lifestyle. Also, he was knighted by Queen Anne.Ackroyd’s account of this towering giant of science was quite revealing. It reaffirms my belief in the benefits of the study of extraordinary people. One gets a good look at what makes them creative, how they deal with obstacles, what human frailties they had to manage and clues about what traits could be used to enrich your own life.As I read these biographies, I am always mindful of how they were educated. Their individual path to success provides some clue as to the wisdom of current proposals to teach math and science so that “no child will fail.” The story of Newton is another source of insight into how we find, sort and employ the product of good minds.Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community CollegeSeldom does one encounter such lavish praise offered to a human being as that given to Isaac (later, Sir Isaac) Newton. His accomplishments in natural philosophy — as science was then called — fully justify these generous gifts of praise. The renowned British poet Alexander Pope is hardly to be matched in his recognition of the intellectual power of this student of the universe.“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,“God said Let Newton be! And all was light.”British author Peter Ackroyd has a formidable record of publications, which include some of the most creative writers in England’s history. William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and Thomas Moore are several on his distinguished list. His most recent, “Newton,” is a worthy addition to professional successes. In this small volume, one can get a clear picture of this multitalented genius at his best and his worst.Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 in an obscure village in Lincolnshire, England, from a family of modest means. He was deserted by his mother when he was only 3 years old and was, for some years, raised by his maternal grandmother. This has led biographers to suggest that this abandonment might have fostered his lifelong tendency toward great insecurity, inability to have but few close attachments to others, a suspicious and secretive behavior and a capacity for anger and aggression toward those whom he perceived to be his opponents. He became involved in several highly charged confrontations with those who challenged his claims or actions. Newton attended Cambridge University (Trinity College) at age 19 in 1661 and immediately made an impression on his professors. Indeed, Newton himself was of the opinion that he knew more about mathematics than his professor. Within several years, Newton made advances in optics and cosmology and invented differential calculus. Moreover, at the age of 27, he replaced his former teacher as the Lucasian professor of mathematics. During this period, Newton also began a lifelong interest in alchemy — the art of turning ordinary metals into gold — and an intense attraction to the study of books of Daniel and Revelations. At the same time, he was obsessed with his own program of experimental and theoretical science. As was his nature, Newton was driven to the point that he deprived himself of rest, food and sleep.Newton is best known for his discoveries relative to the nature of light, the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. All of his discoveries were supported with records of experiments and the mathematical basis for his claims. He asserted that “natural philosophy should not be founded on metaphysical opinion, but rather on experiment.” His biographers point out that Newton did not live by that rule.Some mention must be made of Newton’s monumental book, “Principia Mathematica.” In explaining the nature of gravity, Newton wrote that he did not pretend to know the cause of gravity and that he had supplied the mathematics rather than the physics of that phenomenon. No matter, one of his associates stated that Newton supposed that “Gravity had its foundation only in the arbitrary will of God.”In later years, Newton became the master of the mint for the government. According to reports, he was a very able officer, making many reforms in the production of coins and in the means to discover counterfeiters. Newton moved to London and lived a more genteel lifestyle. Also, he was knighted by Queen Anne.Ackroyd’s account of this towering giant of science was quite revealing. It reaffirms my belief in the benefits of the study of extraordinary people. One gets a good look at what makes them creative, how they deal with obstacles, what human frailties they had to manage and clues about what traits could be used to enrich your own life.As I read these biographies, I am always mindful of how they were educated. Their individual path to success provides some clue as to the wisdom of current proposals to teach math and science so that “no child will fail.” The story of Newton is another source of insight into how we find, sort and employ the product of good minds.Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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