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A life of perseverance

EVERY child has been fed the story of Isaac Newton's discovery of universal gravitation. But what is not told is that this idea did not come to Newton as a flash of insight. Treating the discovery as just a bright idea vulgarises the creativity of a great scientist and philosopher, as Westfall shows in this brilliant biography of Newton (1642-1726).

By Shukla Basu
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Newton wasn't a man of halfhearted pursuits. When he thought of something, he became obsessed with it. In his later years, when asked how he discovered the law of universal gravitation, Newton said, "By thinking on it continually."

What distinguishes Westfall from Newton's other biographers is his skill in weaving little anecdotes and parts of conversations with facets of Newton's life in a delightfully rounded account that presents the scientist not just as a cold, remote genius, but also as a flesh and blood person.

Westfall's major source is the narratives of John Conduit, who had married Newton's niece, Catherine Barton. Conduit hero-worshipped Newton and meticulously recorded all their conversations and many anecdotes. Westfall portrays the agony that Newton went through as a child. Born three months after his father died, Newton was ignored by his mother who remarried soon after. At school he was isolated by other boys because they hated his superior intellect.

His days at Trinity College, Cambridge, were hardly any better as a subsizar (a poor student who survives by performing menial tasks for the fellows) because his mother begrudged him a further education and an allowance she could easily afford. Used to servants at home, whom he treated rather harshly, Newton found emptying chamber pots galling.

He was relieved by a fellowship in 1664 and the Lucas professorship in 1669, which left him free to pursue what he chose, but stipulated three unforgivable sins he had to avoid: crime, heresy and marriage. Newton was too ardent afford a scholar to sacrifice his studies for any one of them and died a rich bachelor, his estate worth 32,000.

It was at Cambridge that Newton realised all his scientific achievements. He led an unimaginatively rich intellectual life, embracing the whole of natural philosophy, ranging from mathematical physics to alchemy. He provided a new direction to optics, mechanics and celestial dynamics, laying down a tradition enquiry that continues till today.

Westfall shows how Newton, over the years, fumbled and floundered, baffled by problems of overwhelming complexity in natural philosophy. Universal gravitation was certainly not the crux of a paper that he wrote soon after graduation that revealed the "inverse square relation". In Newton's words, "I deduced that the forces that keep the Planets in their Orbs (orbits) must (vary) reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centres about which they revolve." At that time, his immediate problem was to work out how the mean was held in its orbit, given the "endeavour of the Moon to recede from the Centre of the Earth", that is its centrifugal force, which he compared to gravity.

An equally important theme in his own eyes was what he described as the "celebrated phenomena of colours". Even the discovery that light isn't white but a spectrum of seven colours took him several years ofresearch.

The Life of Isaac Newton is an abridged version of Westfall's biography of Newton, called Never at Rest, written in 1980. Its reduced length and technical content and the lucid presentation of abstract scientific ideas make it comprehensible to lay readers interested in the functioning of a great mind and a person fall of paradoxes.

Shukla Basu is a freelance writer.

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