Thursday, January 18, 2007

"Let Newton be"
and all was light


Isaac Newton, by James Gleick, Read by Allan Corduner, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2003

The first thing that probably comes to most people's mind when they think of Isaac Newton is an apple dropping on his head providing him with the Eureka moment of the discovery of the principle of gravity. It's the shorthand we've all internalized for the discovery of gravity. It is also, coincidentally, the fruit generally depicted in any Garden of Eden story, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Strangely, in both cases, neither instance in the popular mind is correct. Apples, being native to the Kazakh region of Central Asia near the Chinese border, would be unlikely to be found near any conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates, even if you did credit the story. Likewise, no apple fell on the mathematician's head, that story being a whole cloth fabrication after the fact.

If there is a name in science that might popularly rival that of Newton's the only real candidate would be Einstein (whose name has become a kind of insult in the anti-intellectual United States) whose work actually builds upon his predecessors, much in the same way Newton declared of his own discoveries. "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

James Gleick, noted for his accessible, lively biographies of famous scientists, has here in Isaac Newton provided a bite-sized take on the life of this giant, quoting liberally from his letters and diaries, as well as correspondence and documents of the time. The whole thing reads with the pleasurable briskness of a novel, rarely bogging down in the more technical mathematics which ever circled the man's brain. If, like me, you aren't particularly mathematically minded, this is a boon.

And yet at the same time, Gleick's entertaining book makes me wish I were more inclined in that direction. The intricate mysteries of the universe and its laws have rarely been given a more loving treatment without recourse to mystical hocus-pocus. Nor have the inner politics of the science community seemed more thrilling and of pitch and moment. While Gleick starts out with Newton's youth, he doesn't dwell long, and before we know it, Newton is off to school, grasping mathematics well above the heads of his tutors.

The prematurely born son of an illiterate Lincolnshire village peasant farmer, it is remarkable that Newton should grow up to not only completely alter our entire perception of the universe and our place in it, but to be a national hero whose body lies in state after his death. It's a trajectory completely at odds with his family background and all the more inspiring for it. Interested at an early age in sundials, Newton is given formal training in mathematics in his school as the pupil of a teacher overly ambitious for his students.

This early shining in school led to the big city eventually. A pious but poor student in Cambridge, he learned an alchemical shorthand to encode his diary of his sins; mostly, these consisted of shortcomings in piety such as not sufficiently observing the sabbath or being distracted in church. This alchemy connection was to stay with Newton all his life, alchemy being at the time not the discounted early branch of science we know it to be today. Gleick makes the valid point, too often forgotten in hindsight sneering, that without much of alchemy's early work science's advancement would have been considerably retarded.

The big city and university life proved to be more of a distraction than a boon to Newton. Apparently he found metropolitan life rather taxing with its fashions, its obligations, its hustle and bustle. While few things could be numbered as distinct positives arising from the bubonic plague that struck England during the years 1665-1666, at least one remains. The retreat from the city back to his family home in Lincolnshire lead to some of Newton's greatest discoveries.

Away from his official studies and the hurly burly of school society, his mind had time to quiet itself and ponder in deep geometric consideration. Here is where Gleick cleverly puts Newton's life, ideas, and accomplishments into a well-paced narrative, not bogging down the thrust of his achievements in explanatory minutiae. A loner by temperament, Newton needed this solitude and silence, the great bulk of his later work undertaken in similar circumstances. Despite his solitary nature, membership in the Royal Society was granted, his participation done from a long remove.

It is here, in these fruitful years, Newton makes in his notebooks the early forms of his axiomatic laws of motion. Gleick quotes these repeatedly in their differing forms as he moves along Newton's struggles to quantify motion. The effect is a heightening of tension; you want him to get it, you want that beautifully simple and elegance of language to bloom in its familiar form.

There is, however, a kind of amazement when one reads books about early discoveries; things we all take for granted as simple facts are discovered and there are actually debates about what now seems as obvious as sunrise. Much of Newton's work with light and prisms falls into this category, experiments done in a way now commonplace in middle school science classes. Newton's discoveries regarding breaking white light into its differing colors is one of Gleick's better examples. That such things might be open to debate is almost unthinkable, and the tension is here applied through the villain of the work, Robert Hooke, with whom Newton had a long running rivalry and hatred.

A touchy fellow, easy to take offense, Newton withdraws his membership from the Royal Society when Hooke disputes his prism experiments and insists that light is a wave and not a particle. The disagreement would last for several years* and would breed others in its place, the two of them never quite patching it up. Bad blood and bad dealing were on both sides of the equation here, though Hooke seemed to take an especial pleasure in pricking the sensitive Newton.

Remarkably, the entire controversy and fighting took place through the mail, Newton having never left Cambridge for London, having met not one member of the Royal Society face to face. There was perhaps a temperament here, though it also could likely have a chemical basis. A regular handler of mercury, Newton was slowly poisoning himself as the liquid metal built up in the body. One of the symptoms of mercury poisoning was susceptibility to paranoid delusions. Much of this mercury exposure came about as Newton experimented with alchemical theories.

"Newton," we are told when Gleick mentions these interests of Newton's, "lived in a pre-Newtonian age." While the concept of a Scientific Revolution is in part a hindsight title applied to an era not so self-aware, there were small groups, such as the Royal Society, who did consider themselves the vanguard of learning. Yet at the same time, amusingly bad ideas continued to crop up such as how all the waters in the world went down a hole at the North Pole to be regurgitated out at the South Pole.

Gleick himself takes especial pleasure in running roughshod over non-scientific tripe such as this, as in his well-deserved gibe at American superstition in contrast to Newton's hard fought "scientific" examination of theology. When Halley's comet appears, the Royal Society study and discuss while Cotton Mather delivers a sermon on the celestial traveler as a message from God about the wickedness of the colonists. A wickedness God feels the need to remind us about once every seventy-five years apparently.

The book works toward the greatest scientific treatise of the time, Newton's Principia as a kind of climactic scene, then takes the time to break it down to simple language showing just how magisterial and encompassing the book was, how much it explained: the shape of the earth, gravitational tides related to the moon, gravitational forces acting with each other, gravity's equal power on all items, but weakening from the distance based on the center of the earth, let alone the man's fantastic laws of motion. These general principles are so well understood, such a foundational bedrock to our scientific understanding that it's a sign of Newton's genius that he took the time out to distill each law down to a pithy few words such as could be understood by nearly anyone on the street. "A body at rest or in motion will remain in that state unless acted upon by some outside force." What more need be said?

And yet, life continues. One hits a high point and life marches on with you, the world not so inclined to let Newton alone. Nor was he, by this time, as recalcitrant with public life as previously. King James II precipitated a constitutional crisis by insisting on Catholicism and certain Catholic strictures and laws despite the various Anglican-based laws already on the books. This lead to James' forced abdication and the coming of William and Mary of Orange. Seated in Parliament, Newton was among those who welcome the new Dutch king and queen. The lesson of Galileo, it seems, hadn't been lost on Newton.

Perhaps the controversy most damning to Newton's name in all of this was the way he handled the calculus debate. Much intellectual foment was about in those days in the mathematical world. While Newton apparently developed much of his theories in calculus on his own quietly without ever publishing his findings, German philosopher/mathematician Gottfried Leibniz was doing exactly the same spadework — though publishing it. When the Royal Society and Newton got wind of Leibniz's work, they attacked him for plagiarism. A brouhaha ensued and both parties submitted letters and diaries and paperwork to bolster their claim.

Here's where it becomes slimy. Newton, claimed (with good reason) that he hadn't published his calculus for fear it would have been mocked (by Hooke most likely). Stung by the positive reception for Leibniz's work, he wrote and published under the rubric of the Royal Society an anonymous history of the development of calculus very much in his favor and attacking Leibniz; he followed this up by reviewing anonymously the Royal Society report (which he wrote) giving a thumbs up to the report and further trashing Leibniz. It is a black mark no amount of justification can erase from the man's name.

Gleick to his credit doesn't gloss over the ugly aspects of this hypocrisy nor does he flinch from calling a spade a spade here despite the clear admiration he holds for Newton, an admiration apparent on every page. The book provides the good, the bad, and the ugly which is the gold standard when writing a biography. Whereas Gale E. Christianson's biography stands as the exhaustive full length treatment of Newton's life, Gleick's work is of value to the dabbler and the interested. If it inspires you to read more about Newton, then the author would probably consider that a fine testament, his moment standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Allan Corduner reads this work in fine voice, though without any chance to really shine save in delivering the whole in a crystal clear voice, standing back and letting Gleick's work have its say.


*This debate in fact persisted until Einstein cut that Gordian Knot by suggesting that light was both a wave and a particle, that is, a particle that behaved with wave like qualities and vice versa.

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