Measuring an intellect as limitless as the universe

Timothy Ferris is the author, most recently, of "Seeing in the Dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe," which won the 2003 PEN USA West award for research nonfiction.

Although he is one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, Isaac Newton is scarcely the first whose biography one would volunteer to write.

He poses, for starters, an IQ problem. Newton was, literally speaking, unbelievably smart -- so smart that to accurately relate his thought processes is like trying to compose a credible narrative of the physical feats of Paul Bunyan. "The more I have studied him, the more Newton has receded from me," Richard S. Westfall wrote in the preface to his imposing 1980 Newton biography, "Never at Rest," at the conclusion of 20 years of toil that left Westfall wondering why he'd ever taken on so daunting a task. "The end result of my study of Newton has served to convince me that with him there is no measure," Westfall added. "He has become for me wholly other, one of the tiny handful of supreme geniuses who have shaped the categories of the human intellect, a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow beings."

Plus, Newton did too much. Although he invented the calculus and figured out gravity and light, laying the foundations of mathematical physics so firmly that, as physicist Hermann Bondi put it, they "entered the marrow of what we know without knowing how we know it," these attainments consumed but a fraction of Newton's time. Most of it he devoted instead to the study of theology and alchemy, producing thousands of pages inscribed in a crabbed, slanting handwriting, with many emendations and crossings-out, work resembling that of a crank (although scholars claim that it establishes Newton as the foremost alchemist and one of the leading biblical scholars in 18th century Europe). This nonscientific Newton inhabits a kind of parallel universe, in which the heavenly bodies are depicted in terms not of physics but of divine prophecy. "In the Apocalypse," he writes, "the world natural is represented by the Temple of Jerusalem & the parts of this world by the analogous parts of the Temple: as heaven by the house of the Temple; the highest heaven by the most holy ... the Sun by the bright flame of the fire of the Altar ... the Moon by the burning coals upon the Altar ... the stars by the Lamps," and so on, and on.

Nowadays you can see many of these papers for yourself on the Web, courtesy of the Newton Project (www .newtonproject.ic.ac.uk). Their unanticipated contents astonished the economist John Maynard Keynes, who purchased a quantity of them at Sotheby's in 1936. (In a notorious act of scholarly vandalism, Lord Lymington, the Earl of Portsmouth, auctioned off the papers piecemeal to raise cash for the British Union of Fascists. Many have been recovered -- Keynes gave his to Trinity College -- but the fate of others is unknown.) A startled Keynes concluded that Newton was "the last of the magicians

Newton published none of this stuff and might never have published any physics either, had he not been prevailed upon to do so by Edmond Halley and others at the Royal Society. Which brings us to the issue of Newton's pathological secretiveness. His father, an illiterate yeoman, died before the tiny, frail Isaac was born, and his mother was soon remarried, to a local minister who wanted nothing to do with the boy. Raised by his maternal grandmother, Newton grew up isolated as much by a shamed sense of abandonment as by his overweening intellect, emerging as a psychopathological cornucopia of simmering rage and icy disdain. Coldly imperious, he shunned the collegiality of fellow mathematicians, preferring "silence and meditation" to conversation and declining most correspondence for fear of "being involved in ... troublesome & insignificant Disputes." He deliberately composed his masterpiece on gravitation, the "Principia," in an oddly formalistic format, as if it were a work of mathematical reasoning rather than physics, in part "to avoid being baited by little smatterers in mathematicks." William Whiston, Newton's successor as Lucasian professor at Trinity, judged him to have been "of the most fearful, cautious, and suspicious temper, that I ever knew."

Newton had few friends and virtually no social life until the fame occasioned by publication of the "Principia" brought him lucrative appointments at the Mint, whereupon he moved into a fashionable London flat (which he decorated almost entirely in scarlet, the biblical color signifying royal dignity) and enjoyed the acquaintance of Samuel Pepys and John Locke. They stood by him even when, in 1693, he came completely unhinged, accusing Pepys of popery and Locke of trying "to embroil me with women." Not that women were ever an issue; Newton, an archetypal unbending Puritan and preoccupied scholar, evidently never had sexual relations with anybody at all.

Small wonder that the poet James Thomson, writing a lengthy homage a few months after Newton's death, all but threw up his hands in frustration, pleading, "But who can number up his labours? who / His high discoveries sing?"

Next to nobody, that's who. But that hasn't prevented dozens of biographers from taking him on, in works ranging from little potted homilies to Westfall's 908-page "Never at Rest." Given this groaning shelf of books, what more is there to be said?

A first glance at James Gleick's "Isaac Newton" raises misgivings. The book is short -- only 191 pages of copy, plus 82 pages of notes, sources and index. Its pages are small and its type is big. Nor has Gleick, a respected science writer, established much of a track record in this field. He is the author of one prior biography -- "Genius," a readable and reliable life of the 20th century American physicist Richard Feynman -- along with the bestselling "Chaos: Making a New Science" and a couple of notable technology books, "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything" and "What Just Happened: A Chronicle From the Electronic Frontier." But he has not, to my knowledge, previously delved deeply into the history of science.

Any such doubts are soon laid to rest, however. "Isaac Newton" is an elegantly written, insightful work that brings Newton to life and does him justice. Its brevity, which may or may not have been premeditated, seems to have resulted from a rare and relentless insistence on saying solely what can be said confidently and afresh. Apt omission is key to any art, from throwing a party to writing a poem. As James Salter put it, "The secret of making [art] is simple: Discard everything that is good enough." Easier said than done, but "Newton" is exemplary for what Gleick omits. He makes no pretense of psychoanalyzing Newton or otherwise capturing some imagined essence of him, avoids getting bogged down in scholarly controversies (this he does as deftly as a bodyguard spiriting his charge away from a bar fight) and eschews repeating well-worn anecdotes -- other than the story of Newton's seeing an apple fall and realizing that the moon, too, is falling. No biographer can avoid that tale, which originated with Voltaire and which, considering that Newton's room at home looked out on an apple orchard, is probably true. Gleick manages a fresh take on it, noting that an apple seen from the distance of Newton's window looked about the same size as the moon in the sky.

Gleick proves to be not only a sound explicator of Newton's science but also a capable literary stylist, whose understated empathy with his subject lets us almost see through Newton's eyes. This is his surmise of the young Newton's worldview during the months when, Trinity having been closed owing to an outbreak of the plague, he returned home and created the essentials of his theory of universal gravitation:

"Far away across the country multitudes were dying in fire and plague. Numerologists had warned that 1666 would be the Year of the Beast. Most of London lay in black ruins: Fire had begun in a bakery, spread in the dry wind across thatch-roofed houses, and blazed out of control for four days and four nights. The new king, Charles II -- having survived his father's beheading and his own fugitive years, and having outlasted the Lord Protector, Cromwell -- fled London with his court. Here at Wools- thorpe the night was strewn with stars, the moon cast its light through the apple trees, and the day's sun and shadows carved their familiar pathways across the wall. Newton understood now: the projection of curves onto flat planes; the angles in three dimensions, changing slightly each day. He saw an orderly landscape. Its inhabitants were not static objects; they were patterns, process and change.

"What he wrote, he wrote for himself alone. He had no reason to tell anyone. He was 24, and he had made tools."

So it goes, through 14 gracefully composed chapters that manage simultaneously to hew to a roughly chronological sequence while gathering Newton's main interests into distinct and intelligible sections. Had Gleick stopped there, he would have produced an exemplary nontechnical biography. But he adds a 15th chapter, stepping back to examine Newton's place in history, and it is a small masterpiece. In it Gleick shows us Byron being inspired by Newton to romantic visions of spaceflight: "For ever since immortal man hath glowed / With all kinds of mechanics, and full soon / Steam-engines will conduct him to the Moon." He sketches William Blake's objections to the "abominable Void, this soul-shudd'ring Vacuum," in Newton's picture of the universe. (What would Blake, who felt that "energy is the only life," have made of the recent discovery that the vacuum of space contains 70% of the energy in the universe?)

Gleick particularly appreciates the remarkable extent to which Newton remained alert to the shortcomings of his own world system, evincing a strength of mind and character that enabled him to peer with eerie prescience into the crystal ball of future physics. "Newton left openings for the relativists who followed three centuries behind," Gleick notes: Despite the fact that the "Principia" was based on a conception of space and time as absolute and inflexible, Newton considered that "it may be that there is no such thing as an equable motion, whereby time may be accurately measured.... It may be that there is no body really at rest, to which the places and motions of others may be referred." Newton also pondered the possibility, not fully realized until Einstein came along, that mass and energy are equivalent: "Are not gross Bodies and Light convertible into one another, and may not Bodies receive much of the Activity from the Particles of Light which enter the Composition?" He even speculated about the existence of what we today call nuclear force -- that, as Gleick paraphrases him, "another force, independent of gravity, magnetism, and electricity, might prevail only at the smallest distances."

In his early 50s Newton scribbled, amid some unpublished notes on philosophy, these words: "To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. 'Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after you." Much the same could be said of writing about Newton: 'Tis better to say a little with certainty and leave the rest for others to come. As Westfall was wise and candid enough to concede, the notion of capturing all of Newton is less a goal that writers fall short of reaching than a horizon toward which many may venture but none attain. The only way to see more of him, within a widening horizon, is by climbing to a higher altitude. This Gleick has, admirably, achieved.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°