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Our ReviewA lyrical writer on the subject of mathematics, David Berlinski (A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm) takes on one of the most significant scientific thinkers of all time. Although Newton's Gift does convey something of the life and times of Isaac Newton, the main strength of this book is its emphasis on the actual work that led to Newton's fame. It's very difficult to try to imagine a time when concepts that are now commonplace and ingrained in the way we think about the world didn't exist. Universal gravity was once such an idea. The connection between falling apples and the orbit of the moon was an insight of genius because Newton discerned the underlying principles at work -- that any two material objects attract each other. The natural state of objects is to be either at rest or to travel at a constant speed in a straight line unless acted upon by a force. Therefore the orbit of the moon is actually the moon continually falling toward the earth from the point where it would have been traveling in a straight line if the earth's gravity were not pulling on it. (Berlinski provides simple diagrams in the text to illustrate this point.) Previously, forces were thought to be active only when two objects were in contact with each other, such as two billiard balls knocking into each other. Any sort of "action at a distance" violated previous scientific explanations.
Berlinski also offers an explanation of how Newton arrived at the calculus, a discovery made nearly simultaneously with Gottfried Leibniz, as well as descriptions of Newton's other achievements, including whipping the English Mint into shape and terrorizing suspected counterfeiters. However, he gives brief mention of Newton's theological and alchemical interests. Readers interested in this aspect of Newton's thought should turn to Michael White's excellent Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. On Newton's infamous vindictiveness, Newton's Gift does recount Newton's battle with Leibniz over the calculus and his deletion of all references to Robert Hooke from his masterpiece, the Principia, when Hooke accused him of plagiarism. For more on Newton's contentious relationships with other scientists, the recently published Newton's Tyranny details how Newton suppressed the work of two of his contemporaries, John Flamsteed and Stephen Gray.
--Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor
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