- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003


By Patricia Fara

Columbia University Press, $35, 347 pages, illus.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Max Planck and Albert Einstein announced to the world two theories that were to alter our perception

of reality. One, quantum physics, shreds the very fabric of reality into pixilated unites of energy and light and eventually into uncertainty.

The other, relativity theory, both expands and compresses time like so much clay, doing away with what had been regarded as the Newtonian absolutes of space and time and deforming the straight line-based geometry of Euclid. Physicists took notice. Others, if they took notice of the new theories, were perplexed or incredulous. All waited tangible proof, which came decades later with the invention of television and the atomic bomb. A new era in the history of science had begun.

In her appealing history of the impact Isaac Newton had on western culture, “Newton: The Making of Genius,” Patricia Fara takes us back to another halcyon time in the development of science, 300 years ago, when one man — Newton — more than any other, brought us kicking and screaming irrevocably into the scientific age.

This Newton accomplished in 1687 with the publication of “Principia Mathematica” where he reasons the universe as a few differential equations. Ms. Fara’s book is not about the origins and development of Newton’s great mind, but about how the world came to see him as a genius, indeed as the example of scientific genius par excellence. At the time he published his “Principia,” Ms. Fara notes that only a few minds were capable of fathoming its profundity and the magnitude of Newton’s accomplishment. This failure of comprehension delayed its influence on Western thought.

Instead, it was with the publication of his “Opticks” in 1704 that the great man’s genius became evident. In that work, Newton described the refraction of sunlight by a prism into a rainbow of colors. He also — and this is very significant — espoused the application of mathematics to scientific research. The book and its arguments dazzled the public and had an immediate impact, ushering in what we call today the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. With thepopularity of Newton’s “Opticks” greater attention began to be paid to his “Principia” and its seminal significance.

There was a deep irony in what happened. Newton, who never lost his Christian faith and who has been described as “god-filled,” presented the Age of Reason with a materialistic and clockwork universe, which had not been his intention.

Among the first to trumpet Newton’s genius were the French who embraced the Englishman’s Theory of Universal Gravity, while jettisoning much of the natural philosophy — the science of the great French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes.

Voltaire and his mistress Emilie du Chatelet were among the earliest and most articulate and influential of Newton’s continental converts. Not mincing words, Emilie described Cartesian natural philosophy as “a house collapsing into ruins.” Voltaire’s own homage to Newton, writes Ms. Fara, “verged on obsession,” obliging his dinner guests to gaze with admiration on a bust of Newton while their host praised him as the greatest genius who had ever walked the Earth, the true deity of the “New Age.”

Voltaire’s admiration of Newton was part of the Anglomania that spread among the intellectual and cultural elite of France in the 18th century. By the early 19th century, as Ms. Fara shows, Romantic reaction had set in against Newton, reason, and the achievements of science.

John Keats lamented that “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings … /Unweave a rainbow …” Charles Lamb sobbed that Newton ” had destroyed all the Poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.”

Of course Newton did no such thing. More accurate (and for this reviewer, deeply moving) were William Wordsworth’s nonjudgmental lines written after viewing the statue of Newton at Cambridge: “Of Newton with his prism, & silent face, / The marble index of a Mind for ever / Voyaging throu’ strange seas of Thought, alone.”

But some of the best lines on the great man fall to Lord Bryon in “Don Juan”: “And this is the sole mortal who could grapple / since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.”

Newton’s influence spread widely, into realms of thought that seem distant from his theory, Ms. Fara shows. John Craige turned the principles of Newtonian physics to religion in his 1699 the Mathematical Principles of Theology. They were applied to economics in “The Mathematical Principles of Wealth.”

More lasting than their influence on theology or economics, Ms. Fara shows, was the effect Newtonian physics — and its argument that gravity and its laws are universal and democratic — had on politics. This influence is reflected in Thomas Jefferson’s description of the rights that belong to men which “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them …” The influence of Newton’s theories can also be seen in the French Revolution, Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” and the concept of scientific socialism.

I enjoyed Ms. Fara’s thought-provoking discussion of Newton’s legendary moment with a falling apple. She points out that Newton was well read in the Bible and in current literature. In his epic “Paradise Lost” (1667), the poet John Milton associated the apple with the tree of knowledge, no doubt playing on the Latin words for apple, malus, and for evil, malum.

Newton’s annus mirabilis, when he had his insights that he turned into his great theory, occurred in 1665-66. But it was in later years that he told friends that his eureka moment, when he connected the falling apple with the movement of the planets, happened while he was sitting under an apple tree at his mother’s farm at Woolsthrope where he was passing time avoiding the plague raging in London and Cambridge. What could portend and symbolize the brave new world of science better than an apple and a tree of knowledge? Was Newton in wily old age building his own myth by serving as his own Parson Weems, the creator of the apocryphal story of George Washington and the cherry tree? Most likely we will never know.

Ms. Fara comes up with some unusual and at times delightful information. In 1998 a first edition of “Principia” sold for $3 million in New York. The cost of publication for the initial 300 or so copies was paid out of pocket by Edmond Halley, who gave his name to the comet.

Halley paid for the book’s publication because the Royal Society had gone way over budget publishing its “The History of Fishes.” It is also of interest that “Principia“‘s publisher, Joseph Streater later turned to publishing salacious literature (perhaps because there wasn’t much money in scientific books). For which he was imprisoned.

Ms. Fara’s book is well written, for the most part, but it does have significant problems. It’s tiresome, for example, that she disparages Albert Einstein for calling Newton’s time “the childhood of science,” a statement she evidently takes as disparagement. She also takes John Maynard Keynes to task for referring to the great man as “the last sorcerer,” a title that’s apt for a man who spent an enormous amount of time studying alchemy and astrology, which Newton did.

Ms. Fara’s spin on Newton as a kindly and at times magnanimous person for offering what seems a generous thanks for those who went before him — his famous “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” seems wrong-headed and misleading.

I much prefer Michael White’s portrait of Newton in his “Newton: The Last Sorcerer” (1997). Mr. White showed that Newton penned his famous line about standing ‘on the shoulders of giants’ in a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke. Hooke, who coined the term ‘cell’ in biology, and Newton had had a long and very contentious fight about the nature of light. That Hooke is said to have been a stooped and very short man puts Newton’s statement in a whole new light — and fits in as part of a protracted and bitter exchange between two brilliant men.

Ms. Fara writes, Newton “introduced the new concept of gravity, picturing a universal attractive force stretching out through space.” This is wrong. Before Newton was born Kepler conjectured an attractive force between the objects of the Solar System proportional to their size and Galileo estimated the Earth’s gravitational force as the rate of fall of an object.

The publication date of Goethe’s “Werther” is given as 1744. It appeared in 1774. And Ms. Fara identifies a plant in a much reproduced engraving of Newton as aloe and says it symbolizes Newton’s genius because it blooms only once after several years then dies. The plant she alludes to, the century plant, is in the genus Agave and is not an aloe. But more to the point the leaves of the plant in the engraving appear to be the genus Olea, olive, an identification given support by several olives that appear to be interspersed among the foliage.

Finally, Ms. Fara is capable of writing sentences that are so transparently obvious they’re unnecessary. My favorite is “After Newton died he no longer exerted control over how he was represented.”

Still, there’s much to recommend this book. It’s packed with a lot of useful, solid history and commentary, and it is likely to enhance any reader’s appreciation of a truly exceptional man.

Raymond Petersen is Professor of Biology at Howard University and teaches a course in the History and Philosophy of Science.



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