| Struck by an apple
Isaac Newton By James Gleick, Pantheon, $ 22.95
Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, spent several years at the end of his life studying Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton’s magnum opus that laid the foundation of modern science. He was preparing to write an annotated version (eventually published as Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader) of the book. John Horgan, Scientific American’s prolific contributor, met Chandrasekhar at Chicago University since he was to write the scientist’s profile for the magazine. Horgan’s query as to how well his recent project was going did not receive an enthusiastic response from Chandrasekhar, who said that he wasn’t sure he wanted a preview of his forthcoming book. Horgan’s assurance that his two-page write-up wouldn’t rob Chandrasekhar’s labour of love of its limelight did irk, rather than comfort, Chandrasekhar. “You think you can summerise Homer’s Odyssey, or write about the Sistine Chapel, in two pages!” he snapped.
Chandrasekhar’s famous quip also applies to James Gleick’s biography of Newton. Before even starting to read it, one wonders whether 191 pocketbook-size pages (the rest of the 272-page title is devoted to notes, references, bibliography and index) are enough to capture the life and works of a genius who, as Chandrasekhar rightly reminded Horgan, was “not merely one of the two or three greatest scientists, but one of the two or three greatest intellects, ever, in any subject”. It’s not for nothing that this Cambridge don recently defeated Winston Churchill in the BBC’s “Greatest Briton” contest.
Gleick, a former New York Times reporter, is perhaps one of the top 10 science-writers today. His Chaos, an enchanting commentary on a long-dormant-yet-currently-trendy topic in science, made bestseller lists in 1987, at a time when A Brief History of Time was nowhere near the publishing horizon. Five years later, he earned widespread acclaim for Genius, a tome on the life and works of the maverick physicist, Richard Feynman. That an author of such credentials should find Newton’s life enticing is no surprise. Newton, writes Gleick, “was born into a world of darkness, obscurity and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers and friends; quarrelled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after.” What better subject for a biographer'
But the lure of a task is no guarantee of its successful completion. Richard Westfall, who toiled for 20 years to set the standard for a scholarly, scientific biography with Never at Rest, a 900-page saga on the life and works of Newton, offered a salutary warning to all who would accept the daunting challenge. “The more I have studied him, the more Newton has receded from me,” he wrote in the very first paragraph of the preface to his book, published in 1980. “The end result of my study of Newton has served to convince me that with him there is no measure…Only another Newton could hope fully to enter into his being, and the economy of the human enterprise is such that a second Newton would not devote himself to the biography of the first.”
Why did Gleick, who took 532 pages to tell the tale of Feynman, choose to devote only 272 pages to Newton' Maybe this time Gleick had a different goal in mind — a short, crisp story of the man who happens to be a biographer’s nightmare.
But this Newton-in-a-nutshell approach hasn’t always worked well. For example, Newton’s derivation of the idea he is most famous for, the so-called inverse-square law, hasn’t got the treatment it deserves. The power of this mighty formula was amply illustrated by the Apollo 8 astronaut, Bill Anders. Answering a question by his son as the satellite was approaching the moon, he replied, “I think Isaac Newton is doing most of the driving now.”
To calculate the gravitational attraction between a pair of objects— be it apple-earth or spacecraft-moon — Newton’s formula states that it becomes double if either of the two becomes twice as heavy, but is reduced to one-fourth if the distance between them is doubled (2 squared inversely is ¼). Newton’s genius lay in understanding that this law was universal: in its orbit around our planet, the moon, too, “falls” from its straight path towards the earth by as much distance in a second as does an apple in the same time. Gleick’s eagerness in exploring “the single most enduring legend in the annals of scientific discovery”, namely an apple’s role in helping Newton attain his insight, is not matched by his superficial attempts to reveal how he managed to have it.
In his ability to straddle both the worlds of the sublime and the ridiculous, Newton had no parallel. And Gleick shows this perceptively. The seeker of truth in Newton goaded him to slide a bodkin into his eye-socket, between eyeball and bone, so he could record what happened next, or, almost as recklessly, to stare with one eye at the sun as long as he could bear only to understand what gave an object its colour. Yet he was not only a secret alchemist, but also, as Gleick says, “in the breadth of his knowledge and his experimentation the peerless alchemist of Europe”.
How could a mind — which showed that heavenly bodies were as subservient as terrestrial ones to laws discovered by mere mortals — embrace something as superstitious as alchemy' Gleick’s straightforward answer is religiosity. Theist to the core, Newton refused to fathom the mystery of gravity. “Hypotheses non fingo (I frame no hypotheses)” was his slogan when it came to understanding the cause of the force acting between two objects. That insight, we all know, was provided by Albert Einstein much later. For Newton, gravity was nothing but god’s will, and alchemy was merely the marvelling at the life breathed into matter by the almighty. Two other aspects of Newton’s life discussed thoroughly by Gleick are his bitter quarrels with Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz in paternity suits over the discovery of the inverse-square law and calculus, respectively.
Gleick’s gamble might pay off, at least in the short-run. This biography of the best-known Briton may lure many a potential reader simply by its size. But how many of them would relish this genius-in-a-nutshell story cannot be foretold. Newton definitely deserved more.