Newton: The Making of Genius

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Isaac Newton has become an intellectual avatar for our modern age, the man who, as even children know, was inspired to codify nature's laws by watching an apple fall from a tree. Yet Newton devoted much of his energy to deciphering the mysteries of alchemy, theology, and ancient chronology. How did a man who was at first obscure to all but a few esoteric natural philosophers and Cambridge scholars, was preoccupied with investigations of millennial prophecies, and spent decades as Master of the London Mint become famous as the world's first great scientist? Patricia Fara demonstrates that Newton's reputation, surprisingly limited in his day, was carefully cultivated by devoted followers so that Newton's prestige became inseparable from the explosive growth of science itself.

Newton: The Making of Genius is not a conventional biography of the man but a cultural history of the interrelated origins of modern science, the concept of genius, and the phenomenon of fame. Beginning with the eighteenth century, when the word "scientist" had not even been coined, Fara reveals how the rise of Isaac Newton's status was inextricably linked to the development of science. His very surname has acquired brand-name-like associations with science, genius, and Britishness--Apple Computers used it for an ill-fated companion to the Mac, and Margaret Thatcher has his image in her coat of arms.

Fara argues that Newton's escalating fame was intertwined with larger cultural changes: promoting him posthumously as a scientific genius was strategically useful for ambitious men who wanted to advertise the power of science. Because his reputation has been repeatedly reinterpreted, Newton has become an iconic figure who exists in several forms. His image has been so malleable, in fact, that we do not even reliably know what he looked like.

Newton's apotheosis was made possible by the consumer revolution that swept through the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. His image adorned the walls, china, and ornamental coinage of socially aspiring British consumers seeking to identify themselves with this very smart man. Traditional impulses to saint worship were transformed into altogether new phenomena: commercialized fame and scientific genius, a secularized version of sanctity. Handsomely illustrated and engagingly written, this is an eye-opening history of the way Newton became a cultural icon whose ideas spread throughout the world and pervaded every aspect of life.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews


Fara offers a fascinating chronicle of the fate of the reputation of Newton from his own times to recent revisions... This volume is a pleasure to read.

National Post - John Fraser

This is...the most efficient historical biographical scetch I have ever read.

Mathematical Reviews - Massimo Galuzzi

The interested reader will discover that Newton has become an intellectual icon for our modern age not only by means of his extraordinary mathematical discoveries. Many other aspects of his life have been exploited to create the image of him. They are examined in this very interesting book.

Science News

Fara's unconventional biography explores this notion of fame-cum-sainthood, Newton's life, and the development of cultural identity spawned by a consumer revolution.

National Post

An audacious and engaging examination of science, celebrity and the nature of genius.... The journey Fara takes us on is no less than the journey of science's progress in public esteem since the end of the 17th century and, as such, it is immensely valuable... beautifully done.

New Scientist

She simply and clearly describes the trajectory of Newton's image, both metaphorical and literal, in the form of portraits and coins....One would like to say that if Newton had not existed he would have to be invented, but what Fara shows us is that he has been invented.

The New Criterion

One of those books--Paul Johnson's Birth of the Modern is another--that sets you to thinking about the deep currents of thought that prevail in any given age.... An excellent survey, from all angles, of Newton's reputation.


Fara offers a fascinating chronicle of the fate of the reputation of Newton from his own times to recent revisions... This volume is a pleasure to read.

Mathematical Reviews
The interested reader will discover that Newton has become an intellectual icon for our modern age not only by means of his extraordinary mathematical discoveries. Many other aspects of his life have been exploited to create the image of him. They are examined in this very interesting book.

— Massimo Galuzzi

Publishers Weekly
This scholarly but accessible social history examines the reasons behind Isaac Newton's canonization as scientific genius, the modern-day equivalent, the author asserts, of secular sainthood. Today, schoolchildren know Newton as the pioneering empiricist who discovered the fundamental laws of nature by observing an apple fall from a tree, yet he was not a scientist. His goal was to understand God, and it was his obsession with alchemy, prophecy and ancient chronology from which his celebrated studies in gravity and optics emerged. In his lifetime, Newton's reputation had little reach outside a small circle of Cambridge scholars. By some, he was thought to be mentally unstable, even insane. By the 18th century, however, he was a national icon in England, and across the channel in revolutionary France his name had become synonymous with rational progress and egalitarian political ideals. Revelations about Newton's Faustian quest to unmask God are not uncommon biographical notes today, yet as Fara states, even Richard S. Westfall, whose biography Never at Rest is still the definitive one, perpetuates the secular myth by downplaying Newton's mysticism to focus anachronistically on his "scientific career." Fara contributes to Newton's biography by focusing on the roots of Newton's apotheosis. She examines how idealized portraits propagated Newton's public image, and how the marketing of Newtonian images outside academic circles commercialized science in the same way Einstein's face sells today. Throughout, Fara, a lecturer at Cambridge University, effectively employs the words and imagery of religious discourse to characterize the idealization and commercialization of Newton in the service of emerging secular politics and culture. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating if sometimes dense study describing how Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) came to be regarded as the world’s first scientific genius. The word "scientist" did not even exist until 100 years after Newton’s death, notes Fara (History and Philosophy of Science/Cambridge); he was known during his lifetime not so much for the laws of motion and optics as for his expertise on biblical chronologies (to him we owe the current obsession of Satanists with the number 666) and on the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts. The author sketches what details we have concerning Newton’s life (no one knows for certain when he was born) and describes his most enduring achievement: demonstrating that bodies in the heavens obey the same physical laws as those on earth. Informing us that there is no way to verify the falling-apple story, Fara moves on to examine the images of Newton in paintings, etchings, and sculptures during and after his life. She also assesses his popularizers—including the adventurous folks who published the fashionable book Newton for the Ladies—and explores the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz, noting the irony that the latter is remembered as a philosopher rather than as the formidable mathematician he was. Meanwhile, throughout this engaging text, she displays an easy familiarity with arts and letters as well as with the relevant scientific literature. Most interesting of all are Fara’s discussions of the evolving notion of "genius." She notes with amusement the thin line between "genius" and "insanity," then discusses how the mantle of "genius" has passed from Newton to Einstein to Hawking and reveals that at a 1998 auction a first edition of Newton’s Principia (1687) went fornearly £2 million. Nothing seems beyond Fara’s grasp in her scholarly examination of apples and alchemy, physics and fame, public relations and reputation. (41 illustrations)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231128063
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/4/2002
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Fara lectures in the history and philosophy of science department at Cambridge University and is a fellow of Clare College. She lives in Cambridge, England.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

List of IllustrationsAcknowledgementsPrefaceSanctityIconsDisciplesEnemiesFranceGeniusMythsShrinesInheritorsNotesBibliographyIndex

Columbia University Press

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