Warm but lacking gravity

25th July 2003 at 01:00
This affectionate study of Isaac Newton's life is entertaining but falls wide of the mark, writes Jonathan Ree

NEWTON'S APPLE: Isaac Newton and the English Scientific Renaissance. By Peter Aughton. Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson pound;20

Isaac Newton's life was like a football match - a thing of two halves. He was a lonely child, absorbed in building working models of mills and clocks out of scraps of wood. When he was 16, his mother gave him responsibility for the family farm, but his vagueness and gullibility proved incorrigible and she hastened to send him to the local university instead.

At Cambridge, his talents were quickly noted, and in 1667, aged 26, he was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics. Four years later, he was elected to the Royal Society on the strength of his small but powerful reflecting telescope. By this time, his dreaminess had deepened into sociophobia: he would keep to his lodgings at Trinity for weeks on end, so absorbed in his papers and experiments that he had to be reminded to eat and sleep.

In 1684 he was persuaded to outline his main ideas for the benefit of posterity, and within 18 months completed his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).

The Principia quickly won recognition beyond the small circle of readers who could understand it. Newton became famous, and started to take pleasure in society. He became MP for Cambridge University and cultivated the company of the great men of his age, including Samuel Pepys and John Locke.

He suffered some kind of breakdown in 1693, but recovered quickly, and in 1696, aged 53, accepted the post of warden and then master of the Mint. It was an easy job but lucrative, enabling him to live the life of a gentleman with a grand new house in Jermyn Street. In 1703, he became president of the Royal Society, ruling it tyrannically until his death in 1727, at the age of 84.

Newton had a few detractors too. There were bitter disputes with the philosopher Leibniz and the scientist Robert Hooke, and unkind stories about his devotion to his niece Catherine Barton, who presided over his London household. Even his friends were disappointed that, after publishing the Principia, he lost interest in mathematics and set off in pursuit of the arcana of traditional alchemy and biblical chronology. Many recent historians have dwelt on these eccentric avocations in an attempt to knock the great man off his pedestal.

Readers who dislike smug debunkers will be favourably disposed towards Peter Aughton's latest book. Like his earlier Endeavour: the story of Captain Cook's first great epic voyage, it is an exercise in hero worship.

Newton's work, according to Aughton, was "the first ever application of the scientific method" and, at a time when "a new outlook was dawning", his achievement was nothing less than to "shake off the prejudices of the Middle Ages".

Unfortunately, Aughton is not accurate. It is a curious time warp that populates 17th-century Cambridge with "overconfident public school products"; John Milton, Puritan poet and author of Areopagitica, that tirade in praise of free speech, would have been surprised to hear that "in the eyes of Puritans free speech was an even greater sin than alcohol", and scientist Robert Boyle was not the first to think of the universe as a piece of clockwork.

Aughton is also prone to howlers when he deals with Latin and 17th-century English (an imprimatur is not an honoured personage, for instance, but signifies that an honoured person has agreed to something being known; the word character did not mean a person but a reputation). He is free of pedantry, perhaps because he is not well informed.

Most readers would be better off with Richard Westfall's Never at Rest (1980), or his Isaac Newton (1993). Aughton is the kind of historian for whom the past is not a foreign country, but a cosy home from home. But if he skirts the hard issues, historical and scientific, he paints a pleasant picture of the world in which Newton lived, and the lavish illustrations are even more pleasing and informative.

Jonathan Ree is a freelance writer and philosopher; his books include Philosophical Takes and I See a Voice (Owl Books)

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