Sir Isaac Newton: The Story of a Scientist and a Scholar
The Life of Isaac Newton, by Richard Westfall, is a condensation of a much more detailed work, Never at Rest. By editing out a significant portion of the mathematics, Westfall provides a shorter version of his research that is more understandable to the general audience (iv). What is left is a highly detailed portrait of the famous English mathematician, physical scientist, and theologian, that is as intimate as possible, given the distance of time and the limited records that survive. Westfall tells the story chronologically, beginning with the earliest traces of the Newton family that can be found in the English tax records and tracing their gradual prominence in the village of Westby, located in Lincolnshire on the West Coast of England (3). Ultimately he describes the birth, on Christmas 1642, of Isaac Newton, the only son of a prosperous estate holder, born three months after his father's death (7). Fatherless, and made motherless as well after the forced banishment of Isaac to his grandparents by a new stepfather, his childhood does not seem to be a happy one given the surviving information. However, his contact with his grandparents did bring about one bright light for Isaac -- the possibility of education. He was sent to grammar school where he very unpopular with the other students and was known by his teacher as "a sober, silent, thinking lad" (13).
Originally, upon his stepfather's death, Newton was to return home from school and manage the estate (17). This went very badly, and when the opportunity came for him to go to Trinity College in Cambridge University, he very happily went (19). As a new college student, the study methods that were to serve Newton throughout his life became quickly evident. He was seen as a "solitary scholar" that attacked new knowledge in a highly systematic method. At this time he organized a multi-page notebook that he entitled "Quaestiones" (36) that organized the topics of his research into the world around him. The ultimate solutions to many of these questions, and the method of scientific inquiry born from this approach, were the forces driving his scholarship for much of his scientific life.
Much has been made of the years 1664-1666, called by some biographers of Newton the Anni Mirabiles, or miracle years (37). Westfall's research indicate that while these years of mathematical study were amazing and showed the beginnings of his genius, much of what Newton began in these years were not finished until years, or even decades, later (39). It was this illusion, that all of this work begun at this time was completed then, that gave the "miracle years" their name. However, it was during this time, during a visit back to Westby due to the closing of Trinity because of the plague, that the now legendary story concerning the falling apple, and the realization that all bodies attract each other, supposedly happened (39). On the par with the "I cannot tell a lie" cherry tree story of George Washington, evidence from Newton's writings show he had not yet formulated the universal theory of gravitation at that time (40). But it is still possible that a falling apple began the thoughts that ultimately derived this physical theory.
One of several important studies that were definitely begun at this time was Newton's formulation of calculus, a claim that would, at the end of his life, lock him into a bitter priority battle with another mathematician who claimed the same invention, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (98). He also formed a typical means of studying, where he devoted himself fully to a question, and forwent even food and sleep until the problem was solved (100). In fact, the most common anecdote about Newton was his ability to do without sleep for days on end, and his habit, when consumed with a scientific problem, leaving his food on the table to be eaten the next morning when he awoke. During this time, Newton also began his investigations into color and its properties that culminated decades later with the publication of his treatise, Optiks (200). His approach to colors, that white light was made up of a mixture of all color, and the prism simply separated them, was in direct contradiction to the ideas of the time that color was an addition to white light (107). He also used a new method to prove his assertions, providing explicit detailed experiments and their results to support his conclusions (108). Although this technique had been used in the past, Newton was the first to apply the observations in the physical world to such abstract theories as gravity, attraction, and inertia without reverting quite so heavily to mystical aethers and vortexes (110). His initial publications in the optics area brought him fame, and began a cycle of publication, argument, miffed retirement from society, and further study until he was convinced to publish further that continued unabated for a good forty years (109). Despite his self-proclaimed position as the emanate English scientist, Newton was curiously unable to publish consistently. He later paid dearly in priority arguments for many of his inventions such as calculus, mentioned above, particular types of lenses, and the sextant, an instrument used for navigation by the heavens in the open ocean (112).
For a number of years Newton did not publish anything and seemed to immerse himself in the study of chemistry and its "occultist" neighbor, alchemy (130). Avoiding the more mystical areas of the science, there is no doubt he was searching both for knowledge as well as gold (131). Newton was also delving into some dangerous theological areas, doubting the existence of the Trinity and attributing it to a corruption of the true earlier Christian religion (132). Despite holding these beliefs until his death, he successfully kept them a secret, and even managed to be appointed to the Lucasian chair of Trinity College without having to take the usual step of taking on the holy orders (133). He kept his then-heretical religious beliefs a secret until his deathbed, when he refused to take his final communion (311).
The visit of Charles Halley, a fellow scientist and clerk to the Royal Society, to Cambridge finally pushed Newton out of his mystical studies and onto the writing of his masterwork, the Principia (161). In typical style, the work was embarked upon in direct reaction to a criticism of his earlier work by Hooke, another famous scientist of the time, and involved a complete immersion into the problems (170). It was through this work that he solidified and finalized his now famous Laws of Motion (190). After publication of the Principia, Newton became an extremely famous scientist. It was also the first time that he had fully completed something that he had begun during his "miracle years" (191). As Westfall observed, "[t]he Principia redirected Newton's intellectual life... from the arcane imagery into the concrete realm of thought where the rigor of mathematical precision could help him reshape natural philosophy" (163). But all was not positive with the publication of the Principia. Shortly afterwards, Newton suffered a complete mental breakdown brought on, at least in part, by the fame, criticism, and clamor for his time that the Principia brought upon him, as well as a fire that had cost him many of his precious books and papers (219).
After his recovery, Newton pulled all the political strings at his disposal to attain an appointment to civil service and leave Trinity College for good, after his thirty-five years of residence (220). He was appointed warden of the Mint, and set his formidable organizational abilities in streamlining its function (224). There is evidence that his studies in alchemy aided his understanding of the minting process (223). Some sort of…