Cover image for Newton : the making of genius
Newton : the making of genius
Fara, Patricia.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xvi, 347 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Macmillan, 2002.
Sanctity -- Icons -- Disciples -- Enemies -- France -- Genius -- Myths -- Shrines -- Inheritors.
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QC16.N7 F37 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Isaac Newton has become an intellectual avatar for our modern age, the man who, as even children know, was inspired to codify nature's laws by watching an apple fall from a tree. Yet Newton devoted much of his energy to deciphering the mysteries of alchemy, theology, and ancient chronology. How did a man who was at first obscure to all but a few esoteric natural philosophers and Cambridge scholars, was preoccupied with investigations of millennial prophecies, and spent decades as Master of the London Mint become famous as the world's first great scientist? Patricia Fara demonstrates that Newton's reputation, surprisingly limited in his day, was carefully cultivated by devoted followers so that Newton's prestige became inseparable from the explosive growth of science itself.

Newton: The Making of Genius is not a conventional biography of the man but a cultural history of the interrelated origins of modern science, the concept of genius, and the phenomenon of fame. Beginning with the eighteenth century, when the word "scientist" had not even been coined, Fara reveals how the rise of Isaac Newton's status was inextricably linked to the development of science. His very surname has acquired brand-name-like associations with science, genius, and Britishness--Apple Computers used it for an ill-fated companion to the Mac, and Margaret Thatcher has his image in her coat of arms.

Fara argues that Newton's escalating fame was intertwined with larger cultural changes: promoting him posthumously as a scientific genius was strategically useful for ambitious men who wanted to advertise the power of science. Because his reputation has been repeatedly reinterpreted, Newton has become an iconic figure who exists in several forms. His image has been so malleable, in fact, that we do not even reliably know what he looked like.

Newton's apotheosis was made possible by the consumer revolution that swept through the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. His image adorned the walls, china, and ornamental coinage of socially aspiring British consumers seeking to identify themselves with this very smart man. Traditional impulses to saint worship were transformed into altogether new phenomena: commercialized fame and scientific genius, a secularized version of sanctity. Handsomely illustrated and engagingly written, this is an eye-opening history of the way Newton became a cultural icon whose ideas spread throughout the world and pervaded every aspect of life.

Author Notes

Patricia Fara lectures in the history and philosophy of science department at Cambridge University and is a fellow of Clare College.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

This scholarly but accessible social history examines the reasons behind Isaac Newton's canonization as scientific genius, the modern-day equivalent, the author asserts, of secular sainthood. Today, schoolchildren know Newton as the pioneering empiricist who discovered the fundamental laws of nature by observing an apple fall from a tree, yet he was not a scientist. His goal was to understand God, and it was his obsession with alchemy, prophecy and ancient chronology from which his celebrated studies in gravity and optics emerged. In his lifetime, Newton's reputation had little reach outside a small circle of Cambridge scholars. By some, he was thought to be mentally unstable, even insane. By the 18th century, however, he was a national icon in England, and across the channel in revolutionary France his name had become synonymous with rational progress and egalitarian political ideals. Revelations about Newton's Faustian quest to unmask God are not uncommon biographical notes today, yet as Fara states, even Richard S. Westfall, whose biography Never at Rest is still the definitive one, perpetuates the secular myth by downplaying Newton's mysticism to focus anachronistically on his "scientific career." Fara contributes to Newton's biography by focusing on the roots of Newton's apotheosis. She examines how idealized portraits propagated Newton's public image, and how the marketing of Newtonian images outside academic circles commercialized science in the same way Einstein's face sells today. Throughout, Fara, a lecturer at Cambridge University, effectively employs the words and imagery of religious discourse to characterize the idealization and commercialization of Newton in the service of emerging secular politics and culture. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Fara (history and philosophy of science, Cambridge Univ.) offers a fascinating chronicle of the fate of the reputation of Newton from his own times to recent revisions. This is not the usual "Newton and the Enlightenment" of the intellectual historians, but a documentary exegesis of Newtoniana, best described by the chapter categories: "Sanctity," "Icons," "Disciples," "Enemies," "France," "Genius," "Myths," "Shrines," and "Inheritors." The forgotten Newton of Arian, millenarian celebrity, dominates the early years; the Enlightenment progenitor, the middle; and the original Genius, the modern times. The latter period is peppered with remarkable incidents in Newtonian studies--the question of Einstein's post-Newtonian relativity, the Marxist accusation of class-interested subjectivity, the rediscovery of his alchemy, and disputed scandals. This volume is a pleasure to read, and it authoritatively explores aspects of the role of science in cultural history that are too often neglected in studies restricted to the content of science as opposed to the image conveyed through its icons. For libraries collecting in intellectual and social history and in history of science. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty. P. D. Skiff Bard College

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations