When Newton was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University in the second half of the 17th century, he conducted a famous correspondence with the secretary of the recently founded Royal Society.
The envelopes of his letters were addressed to "Mr Henry Oldenburge at his house about the middle of the old Palmail in St Jameses Fields in Westminster".
This evocative detail, like numerous others in James Gleick's short biography of Newton, brings home to us just how vaguely defined the world was to which Newton would bring his transforming mathematical precision. Distance and location, time and duration, weights and measures - all were highly approximate by modern standards. Indeed, as warden and master of the Mint in later life, it was Newton's task to introduce and enforce the kind of trustworthy coinage that we now take entirely for granted.
There is nothing really new in Gleick's research, which relies on the massive biography of Newton by Richard Westfall (abridged in 1993). But he tells a compelling story in crystalline prose that effortlessly integrates apt commentary with Newton's own celebrated words and the reactions to Newton of others, ranging from Einstein and Keynes to Pope and Wordsworth.
As an experienced science journalist and author of bestsellers, Gleick writes more engagingly than Westfall, if less authoritatively.
The evolution of the laws of motion and the genesis of gravity are brilliantly handled, with the tale of the apple getting due, but not undue, attention. Gleick reminds us that Newton himself never told the anecdote; it was popularised by Voltaire and then mythologised, even to the extent in the 20th century of the apple supposedly falling on Newton's head. "This may not have been necessary," Gleick drily remarks in one of many illuminating source notes.
Slightly less successful is the treatment of optics and the nature of light. Newton cleaved to the view that light was corpuscular, although he was well aware of evidence for its being a wave - as was proved at the beginning of the 19th century by Thomas Young (whom Gleick unaccountably omits). Newton left open the ancient question of whether the "ether" is the medium that waves to create light, as air is known to wave in creating sound. One of the "Queries" in his Opticks asks: "Is not Vision perform'd chiefly by the Vibrations of this MediumI?" Gleick is therefore significantly wrong to state that Newton "buried the ether".
Newton's pursuit of alchemy, to which he was addicted for decades, and which used to be a source of embarrassment to scientists and biographers, is insightfully investigated. He built a laboratory in Trinity College, "a shed abutting the wall of the chapel", where he stoked a fire night and day in searching for, among other things, a process to make gold. Here he gradually poisoned himself, while secretly noting down mumbo-jumbo about varieties of mercury as "the masculine and feminine semens... fixed and volatile, the Serpents around the Caduceus, the Dragons of Flammel". Yet, when it came to conceiving the great work on gravity, Principia Mathematica , Newton learnt from alchemy, as Gleick shrewdly observes. "He embraced invisible forces. He knew he was going to have to allow planets to influence one another from a distance."
As for the human being behind the science, the book conveys an overpowering sense of his lonely uniqueness. It is not news, nowadays, that Newton - unlike Einstein - was in many ways barely human; but still his ruthless and rancorous treatment of fellow scientists Hooke, Flamsteed and Leibniz can shock. After leaving Cambridge, where he had lived for 35 years, he seems never to have written to a single person there. Presumably his early abandonment by his mother played an important role in his heroic isolation, though Gleick avoids speculating. At his death, full of honours and wealth, it hardly seems a surprise that Newton left no will.
Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The Times Higher .
Author - James Gleick
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Pages - 289
Price - £15.00
ISBN - 0 00 716317 7