Cover image for Newton's gift : how Sir Isaac Newton unlocked the system of the world
Newton's gift : how Sir Isaac Newton unlocked the system of the world
Berlinski, David, 1942-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xviii, 217 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Personal Subject:
Format :


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QC16.N7 B48 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Sir Isaac Newton is among the giants of the scientific era. It was Newton who conceived the imperial vision of mathematical physics and Newton again who created the first and perhaps the greatest of scientific theories. Physicists searching for the elusive final theory that will conclusively explain matter in all of its manifestations are his heirs.Yet for all that, Newton has remained inaccessible to most modern readers, and even to many scientists, indisputably great but indisputably remote.In this witty, engaging, and often moving examination of Newton's life, David Berlinski recovers the man behind the mathematical breakthroughs. The story carries the reader from Newton's unremarkable childhood to his awkward undergraduate days at Cambridge and then to the astonishing year in which, working alone, he laid the foundation for his system of the world. Thereafter, Berlinski describes the creation of Newton's masterpiece, the Principia Mathematica, the monumental feuds that poisoned his soul and that wearied his supporters, and Newton's final re-creation of himself as the master of England's financial system.This is less an exhaustive biography than an appreciation of Newton's greatest accomplishment. When he brought together years of work and towering logic into his "system of the world," Newton projected just one human mind to the outermost stars and planets. At once, he forever redefined the meaning of "nature," and of man's place in the cosmos. This seminal creative act has proved more powerful than that of any politician or king and more long-lasting than any dynasty. Newton's Gift is an edifying celebration of a transcendent man.

Author Notes

David Berlinski is an essayist, philosopher, and mathematician. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton and has spent many years in various academic positions across America and abroad

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Berlinski's skill in successful popularization of matters mathematical (recently in The Advent of the Algorithm, BKL F 15 00) proceeds apace with Sir Isaac. When the reclusive young Newton started thinking about the incompleteness of Kepler's and Galileo's explanations of planetary motion, he found that math itself was inadequate to his leaps of imagination, such as "extending gravity to the orb of the moon," as Berlinski quotes the mature Newton's reflection on his annus mirabilis of 1665^-66. So he invented those concepts about rates of change in speed and acceleration that test-cramming high-school seniors tremble before: infinite series, derivatives of functions, the limit, and the calculus. Berlinski explains these with his customary inventiveness, then changes direction as Newton's interests did; that is, toward obsessions with alchemy and theology that bizarrely contrast with Newton's revolutionary theories of gravity and motion, which burst upon the world in 1687 in his Principia. Showing succinctly what F = other principles in Principia signify, Berlinski's engaging tour highlights both Newton the genius and Newton the flawed, imperfect man. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Isaac Newton (1642-1721) invented or coinvented calculus, discovered gravity and organized physics around mathematical laws. These and other findings in math and optics established him as the great mind of his age. Retiring, introspective and sometimes difficult, he also devoted much of his time to fine points of Christian theology. Known for hit books about math, Berlinski (A Tour of the Calculus; The Advent of the Algorithm) devotes this compact, engaging and readable volume to Newton's life, mind and accomplishments. Mixing snapshots of Sir Isaac's life and times with explanations of what the great man discovered, Berlinski hopes to produce not a detailed biographical record but "a sense of the man" and of how his mind worked. Berlinski's prose adapts with equal ease to historical background and to mathematical explanations: he's sometimes glib, but often a pleasure to read. (The text includes only the barest, most necessary graphs and equations: an appendix goes into greater detail.) The volume draws clean connections between Newton's works and his life, and links both to big questions dear to Berlinski: Did Newton inaugurate two centuries of attempts to explain all of life through math and physics? If he did, how? Are those attempts ending now? And how, exactly, does math relate to physicsÄor to anything else in the world? Some readers will engage with Berlinski as he explores these philosophical tangents; others will simply enjoy his explication of Newton, whom Berlinski very plausibly labels "the last great natural philosopher whose vision about the world can be expressed in an intuitive way"Änot to mention "the largest figure in the history of western thought." (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Berlinski, the author of several other works of science popularization (e.g., The Advent of the Algorithm, LJ 3/1/00), here presents a concise review of the development of Sir Isaac Newton's classical mechanics. He also provides selected brief biographical sections that highlight Newton's somewhat enigmatic personality and his work methods. The discussion of Newton's achievements in mathematical physics necessarily makes some use of diagrams and mathematical equations, but these are kept at a level that should be accessible to lay readers. An appendix gives further details but is still reasonably elementary. In several concluding pages, Berlinski reflects upon the meaning of Newton's work from today's perspective and ponders its implications for the future of physics. His writing style is, in turn, profound, dramatic, quirky, and entertaining. Occasionally, he almost strains too hard to make his work reader-friendly, but in general this is a very effective popular science book. Strongly recommended for both public and academic libraries.DJack W. Weigel, Ann Arbor, MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction Isaac Newton is the largest figure in the history of western science, his influence both inescapable and immeasurable. Newton created the disciplines of rational and celestial mechanics; he discovered the calculus; he advanced a theory of color; and he made profound and audacious contributions to pure mathematics, optics, and astronomy. By showing that a mathematical investigation of the physical world was possible, he made that investigation inevitable. Newtonian mechanics is not only the first, but the greatest, of scientific theories. It provides an explanation for a wide range of terrestrial and celestial phenomena. Within its proper domain of application, it is extraordinarily accurate. And it embodies a combination of simplicity and scope still denied any other scientific theory. These are very considerable virtues. They explain some but not all of Newton's influence. Newton's masterpiece is the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, or the Principia, as it is generally called (after its Latin title). Nothing like the Principia had ever appeared before the seventeenth century; and in truth, nothing like the Principia has ever appeared afterward. In very large measure, it was the Principia that ignited the furious dark energies that brought mathematical physics into existence and that have sustained its fires for more than three hundred years. The Newtonian universe is mechanical in the sense that like a clock it is self-sustaining. There is order everywhere. Planets proceed sedately along their appointed paths, holding themselves in a state of equipoise. Physical processes take place within an unchanging vault of absolute space and in accord with the unchanging beat of absolute time. Propelling itself through space, the universal force of gravitation subordinates all material objects to a single modality of attraction. And all this proceeds in accordance with simple mathematical laws. Newton's great vision of what he called the system of the world has set the agenda for research for more than three hundred years. As the twenty-first century commences, physicists are searching for the unified theory that by means of one set of unutterably pregnant laws would explain the properties of matter in all of its manifestations. The terms of the search are by now familiar. But they are Newton's terms and before Newton, the search would have made little sense. With the theory complete, physics will have reached its appointed end simply because it has no place further to go. Everything will have been understood. Science as an intellectual activity will continue to amass facts in biology or chemistry or psychology, but those facts are destined to be amassed within the chambers of a cathedral that has already been completed. A deep silence will prevail. If Newton's Principia has given the future of mathematical physics its characteristic shape, it has given the future its characteristic question as well. The Newtonian universe is a closed physical system. Whatever happens takes place as the result of causal interactions between material objects. There is nonetheless one aspect of the Newtonian world that is not explained by Newton's theory, and that is Newton's theory itself. The law of universal gravitation binds the world's far-flung particles into a coherent whole; but the law is itself transcendent. It cannot be given an explanation in material terms. This is true as well for the equations governing the electromagnetic field, Einstein's field equations for general relativity, and Schrödinger's wave equation in quantum mechanics. The laws of nature by which nature is explained are not themselves a part of nature. No physical theory predicts their existence nor explains their power. They exist beyond space and time; they gain purchase by an act of the imagination and not observation, they are the tantalizing traces in matter of an intelligence that has so far hidden itself in symbols. Efforts to explain the laws of nature in terms of still further laws of nature that explain themselves have been unavailing. They are what they are. The great physicists have always recognized that the organization of nature represents a profound mystery. They have for this reason paid homage to those laws, seeing in their symmetry and perfection something of great and ineffable majesty. In the utterance of this sentiment, they are following in Newton's broad wake, paying homage to what he paid homage to, a captive in the end of his command. Copyright © 2000 by David Berlinski Excerpted from Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World by David Berlinski All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xiii
A Note to the Readerp. xvii
1. In the Year that Galileo Diedp. 1
2. An Escape from the Plowp. 11
3. The Infinitep. 23
4. The Special Instrumentp. 40
5. Newton in His Primep. 62
6. The Field of Rancorp. 78
7. A Good Questionp. 89
8. A Study in Starknessp. 96
9. A Loan from the Futurep. 108
10. The Orb of the Moonp. 126
11. The System of the Worldp. 132
12. The Captive of His Camouflagep. 143
13. Master of the Mintp. 150
14. The Defilep. 160
15. The Questp. 168
Appendix Descent into Detailp. 175
Newton Chronologyp. 205
Indexp. 213