Newton (Ackroyd's Brief Lives)
When Newton was not yet twenty-five years old, he formulated calculus, hit upon the idea of gravity, and discovered that white light was made up of all the colors of the spectrum. By 1678, Newton designed a telescope to study the movement of the planets and published Principia, a milestone in the history of science, which set forth his famous laws of motion and universal gravitation. Newton’s long-time research on calculus, finally made public in 1704, triggered a heated controversy as European scientists accused him of plagiarizing the work of the German scientist Gottfried Leibniz.
In this third volume in the acclaimed Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd provides an engaging portrait of Isaac Newton, illuminating what we think we know about him and describing his seminal contributions to science and mathematics.
A man of wide and eclectic interests, Newton blurred the borders between natural philosophy and speculation: he was as passionate about astrology as astronomy and dabbled in alchemy, while his religious faith was never undermined by his determination to interpret a modern universe as a mathematical universe.
By brining vividly to life a somewhat puritanical man whose desire to experiment and explore bordered on the obsessive, Peter Ackroyd demonstrates the unique brilliance of Newton’s perceptions, which changed our understanding of the world.
you must be quick in payment for I intend to loos no time.” On the day after his return to Cambridge on 27 November, he wrote to Robert Hooke explaining why he had not communicated with him as he had once promised. He described himself as suffering from “short sightedness and tenderness of health,” but this may have been in part an excuse or a sign of his general tendency towards hypochondria. He acknowledged somewhat circumspectly that “I have been this last half year in Lincolnshire cumbred
took a coach to Cambridge and bearded him in his den, where he asked him a momentous question about the movements of the planets. Newton claimed already to have calculated the answer. The Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. Newton treated him like a technical assistant. “I want not your calculations,” he wrote, “but your Observations only.” Plate from Flamsteed’s “Atlas Coelestis.” Newton was highly obstructive about its publication; he wanted Flamsteed’s research for his own star maps. “Sr I N
and Mr Hally laugh at Mr Fatio’s manner of explaining gravity.” The young man also claimed that he knew “no one who so well and thoroughly understands a good part [of the Principia] as I do,” and seriously considered the possibility of adding material to that volume in a style more easy to understand. His vanity and bravura may have been considered charming. Certainly Newton found the young man endearing enough to maintain the friendship and, after Fatio’s prolonged absence in Europe, he wrote to
theory of universal gravity and with the knowledge that he had become the most eminent scientist (or natural philosopher) in the world. He wanted more. He may have realised, also, that his days of original thought and laborious calculation had come to an end. He was now in his late forties, past the prime of mathematical genius, and saw nothing ahead of him but a lonely and morose existence in a Cambridge college. He remained active in his alchemical researches and in his investigations of
with them. Fatio himself was placed in the pillory, and there is no record of any further communication with Newton. There were some aspects of his learning that were less controversial. He arranged a Latin version of Opticks, and had asked a young disciple, Abraham de Moivre, to superintend its publication. De Moivre later recalled how Newton would wait for him at Slaughters Coffee-House, on St. Martin’s Lane, and how they would then adjourn to Newton’s house close by to discuss philosophical