Newton: Ackroyd’s Brief Lives

Reviewed by Alexandra Mullen

Sir Isaac Newton is one of the few scientists, I think, who has an afterlife in the public imagination. Even schoolchildren have a mental image of him sitting under an apple tree about to be bonked. The secretive Newton will never have a warm haze around him like that of playful, wispy-haired Einstein sticking out his tongue, but just as people can trot out Einstein’s E=mc2, so they pull out Newton’s laws — e.g. “to every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.”

But few of us know much else about him, and that’s a shame. Details of his life will never overshadow his work — and that’s a good thing — but they do enlarge our sense of how his work came to be, where his genius resides, and what remains inexplicable about him. Our ignorance isn’t the fault of willing biographers. There are several good biographies of Newton in print, especially Richard S. Westfall’s thorough one that comes in at almost 1,000 pages. Peter Ackroyd has written thousands of pages of biography alone — let’s forget about the novels and histories and children’s books for the moment — but he has also started a series of Brief Lives through which he can deploy his expository skill, quick eye, and brisk commentary to terrific effect. His recent biography of Newton weighs in at just a few ounces, but this baby doesn’t feel premature or undernourished.

Newton, by contrast, was a sickly infant; indeed, like David Copperfield, he was “a posthumous child,” born after his father’s death. But due also to his birth on Christmas Day, Newton’s beginnings were a mixture of the unprepossessing and the auspicious. His birth into an undistinguished country family in 1642 coincided with the beginning of the English Civil War. Thus his life and career span the political turmoil from Charles I’s beheading, through Cromwell’s Protectorate, through Charles II’s return, James II’s abortive reign, William, Mary, Anne, and the German George I, who died in 1727, the same year as Newton. Young Isaac survived his somewhat unhappy family life and education at a local grammar school to head off to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he did all of his most important work in mathematics and physics.

And yet Newton’s great teachers were not in the lecture halls: they were Euclid, Descartes, and Kepler, all of whom he read and absorbed on his own. One of his greatest talents — perhaps the only one he shares with Charles Darwin — was his ability to teach himself what he needed to know, from a curriculum that didn’t exist, to prepare for a job for which there was no description. Parallel to this autodidactic talent was Newton’s social self-sufficiency. This manifested itself early, in his isolation from other children while he busied himself in making “knick-knacks and models of wood in many kinds.” He made a mechanical cart (powered by himself at a windlass), a clock (powered by water), a mill (powered by mouse), and a super-accurate sundial; presumably based on his observations, he also made an almanac.

These details of the scientist?s early life seem to have predicted the adult Newton’s ability to build his own apparatus for experiments. His parabolic lensed telescope, for example, required a considerable amount of technical skill to conceive and put together — not only did he build it from scratch, he made the tools to build it, too. But one of his most famous experiments — Newton?s Bucket — is simple enough that you can rig it up in your backyard. These facts are important: natural philosophers tended to be stronger on abstract philosophizing, leaving more practical studies to barber-surgeons and alchemists along the lines of Victor Frankenstein. The fact is that Newton was interested in confirming his speculations by experiment (and conversely in observing natural phenomena and then speculating about their causes), was able to build his own equipment, and was willing for people to know about it. Newton’s questions to himself in his notebooks — for example, “To try whether the weight of a body may be altered by heate or cold” — makes it pretty easy to claim him as an early scientist, a word that in its modern meaning wasn’t even coined until 1833.

And yet. At the same time that Newton proclaimed his intellectual allegiances — “Good friends are Aristotle and Plato, but a greater friend is truth” — he also learned Hebrew the better to understand Old Testament prophecies. He devised an elegant analysis of the constituent parts of light at the same time that he practiced alchemy — in fact, he arguably took alchemy more seriously. Ackroyd writes, “He did not take up, exhaust it, and put it down — as he did with optics and mathematics. It was a continuing preoccupation, engaging his attention for over thirty years.”

I’ve set these terms up as value-laden opposites, which is how we tend to think of them. Certainly Martin Gardner, a far, far, better reader in this field than I am, sincerely thinks so: “What else might he have discovered had he not squandered his energy and talents on alchemy and Biblical exegesis!” he laments in the April 2008 issue of The New Criterion. After Ackroyd’s compressed exegesis of Newton’s life, though, I feel even more strongly that for Newton all his studies were part of a whole. He had a sense of an underlying unity of all things everywhere — a sense both mathematical and mystical. Without it, he might never, say, have made the mental extension from a particular apple drawn to earth to a universal force that binds all bodies together.

There’s a lot of material in Ackroyd’s brisk traversal of Newton’s long life — his famous professional feuds, for instance, with Leibniz and others, and his zealous tenure running England’s Mint. But the material amuses and instructs — and provides food for thought for what we owe Newton, and a mind unafraid to embrace contradiction.