Saturday, February 19, 2011

Isaac Newton

By Mitch Stokes, 181 pages, Thomas Nelson.

Rather than aiming to reshape the world with his scientific discoveries, Isaac Newton believed that he was serving God by deepening human knowledge of His creation. The more we understood God's creation, the more we understood God, so that science was a form of worship for the genius.

Stokes emphsizes this point repeatedly in his biography of the great scientist, noting: "Although Newton considered all his studies to be part of his worship, theology held pride of place, occupying far more of his time than anything else." More detail into Newton's theological writings would have enriched the book.

The famous scientist made most of his central discoveries in his early adulthood, and was able not only to formulate the calculus and other mathematical tools necessary for his insights into gravity and planetary motion, but could also build his own telescopes and other machines. In fact, his telescopes themselves were highly respected by the scientific community.

Ironically, Newton's love for the traditional subjects, theology and alchemy, prevented him from taking more time to clearly explain his scientific theories that would have such a deep impact on the modern world. In contrast, Leibniz, his rival claimant to the founder of calculus, obsessed about making "his theory clear and user-friendly," so much so that, unlike the monastic-like Newton, he had others help make his math more understandable.

Perhaps because Newton did not aim to improve the world with his science, he did not envision any need at making his discoveries user-friendly. He actively discouraged debate over his theories, sometimes refusing or suddenly stopping correspondence with other scientists or with the Royal Society.

Thus he purposely wrote his Principia, a work that opposed Descartes' theories of mechanics, above the understanding of most scientists. He knew that his attack on Cartesian mechanics and mathematics would arouse intense debate. In fact, the Principia "devasted [Cartesian] mechanical philosophy. Newton's entire system was so beautiful, so coherent, so accurate that it simply overwhelmed Cartesian natural philosophy – exactly as Newton intended."

Newton's determination to squash all opposition to the Principia shows the Cambridge professor as unwilling to back down from a fight when he believed he was right. His most famous quarrels were with Leibniz and the English scientist Richard Hooke. Newton hardly attended Royal Society events until Hooke's death in 1703, whereupon Newton became Society president.

Stokes portrays these personality disputes quite well, often focusing on them more than on the science itself.

With the publication of the Principia at age 44 Newton became famous. He moved to London and played a greater role in society, not only by reshaping the Royal Society as its president. He also became Warden of the London Mint, and overhauled the nation's coinage system, expecting the employees there to work as hard and intensely as he did.

Despite the groundbreaking science, Stokes does a solid job of showing that Newton was above all a great man of faith; his discoveries, such as those above, were mere glimpses into the whole of God's creation for Newton.

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