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Measuring an intellect as limitless as the universe

Isaac Newton, James Gleick, Pantheon: 272 pp., $22.95

July 20, 2003|Timothy Ferris | 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 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?"

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