Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World

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Overview

Sir Isaac Newton, creator of the first and perhaps most important scientific theory, is a giant of the scientific era. Despite this, he has remained inaccessible to most modern readers, indisputably great but undeniably remote.

In this witty, engaging, and often moving examination of Newton's life, David Berlinski recovers the man behind the mathematical breakthroughs. The story carries the reader from Newton's unremarkable childhood to his awkward undergraduate days at Cambridge through the astonishing year in which, working alone, he laid the foundation for his system of the world, his Principia Mathematica, and to the subsequent monumental feuds that poisoned his soul and wearied his supporters.

An edifying appreciation of Newton's greatest accomplishment, Newton's Gift is also a touching celebration of a transcendent man.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Our Review
A 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

From the Publisher
New Scientist This is Newton brought to life. You step through its pages into his mind.

Julia Keller Chicago Tribune David Berlinski plus any topic equals an extraordinary book...Making simple and accessible that which had previously been murky and intimidating is Berlinski's speciality.

Hugo Rossi American Scientist Berlinski does a masterful job...The architecture of Newton's physics is laid out here clearly and sharply.

The Christian Century Berlinski draws an elegant portrait of Isaac Newton and his scientific discoveries that will captivate...A thoroughly engaging and sensitive guide to Newton's "soul-shattering worldview."

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Isaac Newton (1642-1721) invented or coinvented calculus, discovered gravity and organized physics around mathematical laws. These and other findings in math and optics established him as the great mind of his age. Retiring, introspective and sometimes difficult, he also devoted much of his time to fine points of Christian theology. Known for hit books about math, Berlinski (A Tour of the Calculus; The Advent of the Algorithm) devotes this compact, engaging and readable volume to Newton's life, mind and accomplishments. Mixing snapshots of Sir Isaac's life and times with explanations of what the great man discovered, Berlinski hopes to produce not a detailed biographical record but "a sense of the man" and of how his mind worked. Berlinski's prose adapts with equal ease to historical background and to mathematical explanations: he's sometimes glib, but often a pleasure to read. (The text includes only the barest, most necessary graphs and equations: an appendix goes into greater detail.) The volume draws clean connections between Newton's works and his life, and links both to big questions dear to Berlinski: Did Newton inaugurate two centuries of attempts to explain all of life through math and physics? If he did, how? Are those attempts ending now? And how, exactly, does math relate to physics--or to anything else in the world? Some readers will engage with Berlinski as he explores these philosophical tangents; others will simply enjoy his explication of Newton, whom Berlinski very plausibly labels "the last great natural philosopher whose vision about the world can be expressed in an intuitive way"--not to mention "the largest figure in the history of western thought." (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Berlinski, the author of several other works of science popularization (e.g., The Advent of the Algorithm, LJ 3/1/00), here presents a concise review of the development of Sir Isaac Newton's classical mechanics. He also provides selected brief biographical sections that highlight Newton's somewhat enigmatic personality and his work methods. The discussion of Newton's achievements in mathematical physics necessarily makes some use of diagrams and mathematical equations, but these are kept at a level that should be accessible to lay readers. An appendix gives further details but is still reasonably elementary. In several concluding pages, Berlinski reflects upon the meaning of Newton's work from today's perspective and ponders its implications for the future of physics. His writing style is, in turn, profound, dramatic, quirky, and entertaining. Occasionally, he almost strains too hard to make his work reader-friendly, but in general this is a very effective popular science book. Strongly recommended for both public and academic libraries.--Jack W. Weigel, Ann Arbor, MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
An exuberant, enlightening account of Newtonian mechanics by Princeton mathematician turned mystery novelist and essayist (The Body Shop, 1996, etc.).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743217767
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David Berlinski is an essayist, philosopher, and mathematician. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and has spent many years in various academic positions across America and abroad. He is the author of A Tour of the Calculus and The Advent of the Algorithm. He lives in Paris.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Isaac Newton is the largest figure in the history of western science, his influence both inescapable and immeasurable. Newton created the disciplines of rational and celestial mechanics; he discovered the calculus; he advanced a theory of color; and he made profound and audacious contributions to pure mathematics, optics, and astronomy. By showing that a mathematical investigation of the physical world was possible, he made that investigation inevitable.

Newtonian mechanics is not only the first, but the greatest, of scientific theories. It provides an explanation for a wide range of terrestrial and celestial phenomena. Within its proper domain of application, it is extraordinarily accurate. And it embodies a combination of simplicity and scope still denied any other scientific theory.

These are very considerable virtues. They explain some but not all of Newton's influence.

Newton's masterpiece is the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, or the Principia, as it is generally called (after its Latin title). Nothing like the Principia had ever appeared before the seventeenth century; and in truth, nothing like the Principia has ever appeared afterward. In very large measure, it was the Principia that ignited the furious dark energies that brought mathematical physics into existence and that have sustained its fires for more than three hundred years.

The Newtonian universe is mechanical in the sense that like a clock it is self-sustaining. There is order everywhere. Planets proceed sedately along their appointed paths, holding themselves in a state of equipoise. Physical processes take place within an unchanging vault of absolute space and in accord with the unchanging beat of absolute time. Propelling itself through space, the universal force of gravitation subordinates all material objects to a single modality of attraction. And all this proceeds in accordance with simple mathematical laws.

Newton's great vision of what he called the system of the world has set the agenda for research for more than three hundred years. As the twenty-first century commences, physicists are searching for the unified theory that by means of one set of unutterably pregnant laws would explain the properties of matter in all of its manifestations. The terms of the search are by now familiar. But they are Newton's terms and before Newton, the search would have made little sense. With the theory complete, physics will have reached its appointed end simply because it has no place further to go. Everything will have been understood. Science as an intellectual activity will continue to amass facts in biology or chemistry or psychology, but those facts are destined to be amassed within the chambers of a cathedral that has already been completed. A deep silence will prevail.

If Newton's Principia has given the future of mathematical physics its characteristic shape, it has given the future its characteristic question as well. The Newtonian universe is a closed physical system. Whatever happens takes place as the result of causal interactions between material objects. There is nonetheless one aspect of the Newtonian world that is not explained by Newton's theory, and that is Newton's theory itself. The law of universal gravitation binds the world's far-flung particles into a coherent whole; but the law is itself transcendent. It cannot be given an explanation in material terms.

This is true as well for the equations governing the electromagnetic field, Einstein's field equations for general relativity, and Schrödinger's wave equation in quantum mechanics. The laws of nature by which nature is explained are not themselves a part of nature. No physical theory predicts their existence nor explains their power. They exist beyond space and time; they gain purchase by an act of the imagination and not observation, they are the tantalizing traces in matter of an intelligence that has so far hidden itself in symbols. Efforts to explain the laws of nature in terms of still further laws of nature that explain themselves have been unavailing. They are what they are.

The great physicists have always recognized that the organization of nature represents a profound mystery. They have for this reason paid homage to those laws, seeing in their symmetry and perfection something of great and ineffable majesty.

In the utterance of this sentiment, they are following in Newton's broad wake, paying homage to what he paid homage to, a captive in the end of his command.

Copyright © 2000 by David Berlinski

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Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction

A Note to the Reader

  1. In the Year that Galileo Died
  2. An Escape from the Plow
  3. The Infinite
  4. The Special Instrument
  5. Newton in His Prime
  6. The Field of Rancor
  7. A Good Question
  8. A Study in Starkness
  9. A Loan from the Future
  10. The Orb of the Moon
  11. The System of the World
  12. The Captive of His Camouflage
  13. Master of the Mint
  14. The Defile
  15. The Quest

Appendix: Descent into Detail

Newton Chronology

Index

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Introduction

Introduction

Isaac Newton is the largest figure in the history of western science, his influence both inescapable and immeasurable. Newton created the disciplines of rational and celestial mechanics; he discovered the calculus; he advanced a theory of color; and he made profound and audacious contributions to pure mathematics, optics, and astronomy. By showing that a mathematical investigation of the physical world was possible, he made that investigation inevitable.

Newtonian mechanics is not only the first, but the greatest, of scientific theories. It provides an explanation for a wide range of terrestrial and celestial phenomena. Within its proper domain of application, it is extraordinarily accurate. And it embodies a combination of simplicity and scope still denied any other scientific theory.

These are very considerable virtues. They explain some but not all of Newton's influence.

Newton's masterpiece is the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, or the Principia, as it is generally called (after its Latin title). Nothing like the Principia had ever appeared before the seventeenth century; and in truth, nothing like the Principia has ever appeared afterward. In very large measure, it was the Principia that ignited the furious dark energies that brought mathematical physics into existence and that have sustained its fires for more than three hundred years.

The Newtonian universe is mechanical in the sense that like a clock it is self-sustaining. There is order everywhere. Planets proceed sedately along their appointed paths, holding themselves in a state of equipoise. Physical processes take place within an unchanging vault of absolute space and in accord with the unchanging beat of absolute time. Propelling itself through space, the universal force of gravitation subordinates all material objects to a single modality of attraction. And all this proceeds in accordance with simple mathematical laws.

Newton's great vision of what he called the system of the world has set the agenda for research for more than three hundred years. As the twenty-first century commences, physicists are searching for the unified theory that by means of one set of unutterably pregnant laws would explain the properties of matter in all of its manifestations. The terms of the search are by now familiar. But they are Newton's terms and before Newton, the search would have made little sense. With the theory complete, physics will have reached its appointed end simply because it has no place further to go. Everything will have been understood. Science as an intellectual activity will continue to amass facts in biology or chemistry or psychology, but those facts are destined to be amassed within the chambers of a cathedral that has already been completed. A deep silence will prevail.

If Newton's Principia has given the future of mathematical physics its characteristic shape, it has given the future its characteristic question as well. The Newtonian universe is a closed physical system. Whatever happens takes place as the result of causal interactions between material objects. There is nonetheless one aspect of the Newtonian world that is not explained by Newton's theory, and that is Newton's theory itself. The law of universal gravitation binds the world's far-flung particles into a coherent whole; but the law is itself transcendent. It cannot be given an explanation in material terms.

This is true as well for the equations governing the electromagnetic field, Einstein's field equations for general relativity, and Schrödinger's wave equation in quantum mechanics. The laws of nature by which nature is explained are not themselves a part of nature. No physical theory predicts their existence nor explains their power. They exist beyond space and time; they gain purchase by an act of the imagination and not observation, they are the tantalizing traces in matter of an intelligence that has so far hidden itself in symbols. Efforts to explain the laws of nature in terms of still further laws of nature that explain themselves have been unavailing. They are what they are.

The great physicists have always recognized that the organization of nature represents a profound mystery. They have for this reason paid homage to those laws, seeing in their symmetry and perfection something of great and ineffable majesty.

In the utterance of this sentiment, they are following in Newton's broad wake, paying homage to what he paid homage to, a captive in the end of his command.

Copyright © 2000 by David Berlinski

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2012

    highly recommend this book. very good and interesting could not put down

    highly recommend this book. very good and interesting could not put down

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