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When I was wondering which book to read next, James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton leapt at me. At less than 200 pages, it wasn’t too long, and so I read it in a couple of days.

This book covers all the important events in Isaac Newton’s life, starting from his birth in a farm, when his father was no more, how he ended up in school, how he went to Cambridge University, how his career progressed from there, how he discovered the law of gravitation and the three laws of motion, how he invented Calculus, his spats with famous scientists of his time including Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz, how he became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and later became a member of the Royal Society, how he later got the King’s patronage and headed the Mint, and what happened after that.

James Gleick’s style is natural and breezy and the book moves at an easy pace. It is very accessible to readers who find books on science challenging or who avoid such books. If I remember right, there is not a single equation in the book. I loved the depiction of the intellectual fights that Isaac Newton had with Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz. My teenage self hated Robert Hooke and backed Newton in the first fight. But my teenage self also backed Leibniz against Newton in the second fight 😁 (Mostly because Leibniz’ system of Calculus is what we use now, because it is far superior to Newton’s system, which is cumbersome.) After reading this book now, I find my older and more mature self backing Newton in both the disputes. I don’t know whether it is because Newton was the aggrieved party in both the disputes, or whether it is because the book is biased and leans towards Newton. I need to read more on this. The book also doesn’t shy away from some of the darker sides of Newton, like when he becomes the head of the Royal Society, and he runs it like an autocrat.

An interesting thing in the book which I couldn’t stop thinking about was Newton’s relationship with his mother. When Newton was born his father was no more and his mother was a widow. When he was three years old, his mother married a rich man. This rich man wanted a wife, but didn’t want an add-on kid. So according to the arrangements made, Newton was left with his grandmother who brought him up, while his mother went to live with her new husband. Years later, when Newton was ten years old, the rich man died, and Newton’s mother returned back. She was wealthy now as she had inherited her husband’s money. The first thing she did after coming back was send Newton to school which was in a nearby town. Newton ended up boarding with the apothecary in that town and worked part-time there, while in school. When Newton was sixteen, his mother summoned him back home, and asked him to get started on his work as a farmer. Newton hated farm-related work and did badly. Then his mother’s brother stepped in and helped Newton get into Cambridge. Even there, Newton’s mother refused to sponsor Newton’s education properly – he joined as a student in the lowest category. The students in this category “earned their keep by menial service to other students, running errands, waiting on them at meals, and eating their leftovers”. Later, it appears that Newton and his mother kept up a correspondence which was polite and familial, and when his mother suffered from a serious illness, Newton left his work and came back home, and stayed with her till the end. It is a very interesting story of a family. Newton’s mother doesn’t come through with flying colours at all, in that story, because she avoided taking care of him when he was a child, but tried to make him take up responsibility and become a farmer when he became a teenager. This probably led to Newton being introverted, solitary and reclusive all his life – he was never attracted to women, he never married, and he never had close friends, except maybe one or two people in his later life. But his mother also sent him to school and later sent him to Cambridge. If she hadn’t done that, Newton would have stayed in the farm and would have been a careless, below-average farmer. One of the greatest scientists of all time would have been lost in the depths of an English farm. So was Newton’s mother a good parent or a bad parent? What do you think?

One of the amazing things that we discover through the book is that Isaac Newton was an ordinary person with respect to socio-economic circumstances. His father was an illiterate farmer. He was expected to become a farmer too. He didn’t have access to books the way we do. Even when he joined Cambridge, he had one notebook. In those days, paper was valuable, because it was probably handmade, and it was a luxury, if you had one notebook. This was the world that the young Isaac Newton lived in. Living in this world, Newton discovered gravity and invented the beautiful, complex field of Calculus. Calculus was so far ahead of its time that most people didn’t understand it. It is a challenging subject even today, nearly 350 years later – I struggled with Calculus when I first encountered it. As James Gleick describes at the beginning of the book – “I don’t know what I may seem to the world, ” Newton said before he died, “but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” An evocative simile, much quoted in the centuries that followed, but Newton never played in the seashore, boy or man. Born in a remote country village, the son of an illiterate farmer, he lived in an island nation and explained how the moon and the sun tug at the seas to create tides, but he probably never set eyes on the ocean. He understood the sea by abstraction and computation.” It is amazing how someone who had so little could accomplish so much. It is so inspiring. It offers hope for the rest of us – that we don’t need so much. We need just one or two fresh notebooks, some pens and pencils, some textbooks, some solitude and quiet, lots of intellectual curiosity and passion, and an inclination to work hard. If we have this, we can accomplish one or two things. I get goosebumps just thinking about this.

I loved James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. It is written in spare and breezy prose, the technical content is not too challenging, and the book is very accessible for a general reader.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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