Newton: A Very Short Introduction

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OUP Oxford, Jan 25, 2007 - Science - 144 pages
2 Reviews
This Very Short Introduction uses Newton's own unpublished writings to provide fascinating insight into the man who kept the Royal Society under his thumb, was Head of the Mint, and whose contributions to our understanding of the heavens and the earth are considered by many to be unparalleled. The author begins with the legends surrounding Newton before next exploring the forces that shaped his life, introducing, along the way, many of the key thinkers and politicians of the time. Although Newton's science was largely revered (his reputation reached near-immortal status with the publication of the Principia), theologically, his beliefs were very controversial. He was a fanatical Protestant, and claimed that tribes like the Goths, Vandals, and Huns had tried to save the planet from the corruption of the Catholics. He was also convinced that he was specially chosen by God to protect the original, pure form of Christianity, and viewed any criticisms directed at him as a form of persecution. Resisting the urge to show how Newton's views on alchemy, mathematics, physics, and religion complemented one another, the author instead emphasises that these were the very different obsessions of an extremely complex man whose beliefs at the time dominated England's political, religious, and intellectual landscape. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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I am a college Physics professor and every once in a while a student would ask me who I thought was the best Physicist ever. Without hesitation I answer "Isaac Newton." Not only the best Physicist, but the best and the most important scientist of all time. In the age which values scientific achievement as a pinnacle of human accomplishment, this is quite a remarkable designation. It is particularly remarkable in the light of the great and unprecedented scientific discoveries that have take place over the last hundred years. Even with all that we have accomplished, the discoveries and insights of Newton still impose themselves after all these centuries have passed. And yet, most people today know very little about Newton himself, or the circumstances under which he worked and what made him such an outstanding individual. It turns out that biographies of Newton have been available all the way since his death early in the eighteenth century, but they were largely incomplete due to the fact that a large collection of Newton's private papers have been inaccessible to scholars until 1970s. The access to these important papers has furnished us with new insights, and our understanding of this great man has considerably increased in the last few decades.
This very short introduction too has greatly benefitted from that scholarship, and we too can get a much better idea of the full personality of Newton from reading it. The material is presented more or less chronologically, and we trace all the main stages of Newton's career. Brought up in what would now be considered an upper middle class family, from the very early on he showed a remarkable thirst for knowledge and a set of technical intuitions and skills. We get a picture of a very introverted man, who nonetheless relishes interaction and discussion with those who can fully appreciate his work. He was also very astute in promoting himself, and sometimes very ruthless to those who opposed and challenged his work. He was particularly confrontational with those who competed with him for the primacy of discovery of particular ideas - Hook and Leibnitz in particular.
It has been known for long time that Newton dedicated a considerable amount of his intellectual effort to theological and religious considerations. Those have been rather less well known than his scientific pursuit, in large part due to the fact that most of his religious views were quite heretical and Newton was reluctant to share them with anyone but a very small group of his contemporaries. Even were they more accepted in theological circles of the time, it is doubtful that Newton's ideas would have had much, if any, impact on theology as a discipline. His views were undoubtedly original and imaginative, but they were methodologically rather ad-hoc and would not have made a good foundation for systematic inquiry.
Newton's reputation was already firmly secured during his lifetime. The subsequent centuries have only served to reinforce it, and this short introduction is an excellent basic resource for fully understanding why.

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - TomSlee - LibraryThing

Newton is a fascinating subject, but this book is pedestrian and doesn't bring him to life. Read full review

Selected pages


List of illustrations
Chapter 1A national man
Chapter 2Playing philosophically
Chapter 3The marvellous years
Chapter 4The censorious multitude
Chapter 5A true hermetic philosopher
Chapter 6One of Gods chosen few
Chapter 7The divine book
Chapter 8In the city
Chapter 9Lord and master of all
Chapter 10Centaurs and other animals
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About the author (2007)

Dr Robert Iliffe is currently Reader at the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, Imperial College. He is also editor of the journal History of Science, and Editorial Director of the Newton Project, an international undertaking which provides him with the unique access to Newton's original writings, many of which have not yet been made public. He has published a number of articles on early modern history and the history of science, and is completing a major book for Yale University Press on Newton's theology.

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