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Posted June 7, 2011
Short introduction to the greatest scientist of all time
I am a college Physics professor and every once in a while a student would ask me who I thought was the best Physicist ever. Without hesitation I answer "Isaac Newton." Not only the best Physicist, but the best and the most important scientist of all time. In the age which values scientific achievement as a pinnacle of human accomplishment, this is quite a remarkable designation. It is particularly remarkable in the light of the great and unprecedented scientific discoveries that have take place over the last hundred years. Even with all that we have accomplished, the discoveries and insights of Newton still impose themselves after all these centuries have passed. And yet, most people today know very little about Newton himself, or the circumstances under which he worked and what made him such an outstanding individual. It turns out that biographies of Newton have been available all the way since his death early in the eighteenth century, but they were largely incomplete due to the fact that a large collection of Newton's private papers have been inaccessible to scholars until 1970s. The access to these important papers has furnished us with new insights, and our understanding of this great man has considerably increased in the last few decades.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
This very short introduction too has greatly benefitted from that scholarship, and we too can get a much better idea of the full personality of Newton from reading it. The material is presented more or less chronologically, and we trace all the main stages of Newton's career. Brought up in what would now be considered an upper middle class family, from the very early on he showed a remarkable thirst for knowledge and a set of technical intuitions and skills. We get a picture of a very introverted man, who nonetheless relishes interaction and discussion with those who can fully appreciate his work. He was also very astute in promoting himself, and sometimes very ruthless to those who opposed and challenged his work. He was particularly confrontational with those who competed with him for the primacy of discovery of particular ideas - Hook and Leibnitz in particular.
It has been known for long time that Newton dedicated a considerable amount of his intellectual effort to theological and religious considerations. Those have been rather less well known than his scientific pursuit, in large part due to the fact that most of his religious views were quite heretical and Newton was reluctant to share them with anyone but a very small group of his contemporaries. Even were they more accepted in theological circles of the time, it is doubtful that Newton's ideas would have had much, if any, impact on theology as a discipline. His views were undoubtedly original and imaginative, but they were methodologically rather ad-hoc and would not have made a good foundation for systematic inquiry.
Newton's reputation was already firmly secured during his lifetime. The subsequent centuries have only served to reinforce it, and this short introduction is an excellent basic resource for fully understanding why.