“‘Does he eat and drink and sleep? Is he like other men?'” – Newton, by Peter Ackroyd

September 15, 2008 at 10:44 pm (Book review, books) ()

The above exclamation came from a contemporaneous French mathematician who was mystified and astounded by the genius of Sir Isaac Newton.

Godfrey Kneller's 1689 portrait of Sir Isaac Newton

Godfrey Kneller's 1689 portrait of Newton

Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd

Alas, I must relinquish my copy of Peter Ackroyd’s small gem of a biography before having had the opportunity to give it its due in this space. So I will simply commend it to you by citing certain passages.

Of Newton’s obsessive study of Holy Scripture: “He wished to bring himself closer to the divine.” More on this:

“In one enlightening passage Newton comments upon the language of dreams in the Old Testament. It is perhaps appropriate the the discoverer of universal gravity was also an analyst of dreams.

Newton was also a student of Biblical prophecy. In the course of this study he formulated a chronology for the future of mankind on Earth. One of his predictions involved “the tribulation of the Jews,” which he said would end in the year 1944.

Here is a description of Newton’s demeanor as he labored to bring forth his masterpiece:

“He would forget to eat and, when reminded that he had left his food untouched, would exclaim, ‘Have I!’ before eating a little while still standing. He never bothered to sit down for his meals. This is the portrait of a man in the grip of an inspiration, or an obsession, that would never let him rest. He was on the verge of the greatest scientific discovery of the modern era.

From this cauldron of thought emerged the Principia Mathematica.

Newton, unsurprisingly, was in many ways a strange man. He never married and seems to have avoided intimacy of any kind throughout his long life. One of his peculiarities was his affinity for the color red:

“It is one of the strange aspects of his character that he was obsessed by the colour crimson. In the inventory of his possessions, drawn up after his death, there is reference to a “crimson mohair bed with “case curtains of crimson,” crimson drapes and crimson wall hangings, a crimson settee with crimson chairs and crimson cushions. There have been many explanations for this, including his study of optics, his preoccupation with alchemy, or his  desire to assume a quasi-regal grandeur. But it may simply be a mark of his  difference from the rest of the world, his uniqueness, a flash of his singular genius in an unexpected setting.

And yes, Newton was, in fact, an avid student of alchemy.

One of the best things about this slender volume is that you can get a real sense of the man and his tremendous achievement without having to plumb the intricacies of mathematics and physics that are beyond the ken of most of us ordinary mortals.

Toward the end of Newton, Peter Ackroyd gives us Alexander Pope’s famous couplet:

“Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.

And now this little books goes into the mix for presentation at tomorrow’s program of biography book talks.

Addendum: I recommend Newton’s Dark Secrets, part of PBS’s Nova series. The DVD is not owned by the local library, but I obtained it easily through interlibrary loan.

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