Isaac New­ton: The Ass­hole Who Rein­vented the Uni­verse

Sky at Night Magazine - - BOOK REVIEWS - EMILY WINTERBURN is the au­thor of The Stargazer’s Guide: How to Read our Night Sky

Flo­rian Freis­tet­ter Prometheus Books £18.55 z HB

Isaac New­ton was a great thinker of sci­en­tific ideas. As a hu­man be­ing, how­ever, he left much to be de­sired. There are many books on New­ton. Few, how­ever, are as out­spo­ken and to the point on his con­sid­er­able char­ac­ter flaws as this one. The di­rect­ness is re­fresh­ing.

The book tells the story of New­ton’s life and work with a fo­cus on what made him (to quote the au­thor) an ‘ass­hole’. We see him steal data from fel­low as­tronomer John Flam­steed, refuse to ac­knowl­edge other peo­ple’s in­put into his work and feud­ing with pretty much ev­ery­one. Each chap­ter ends by imag­in­ing how this kind of be­hav­iour would serve him in the mod­ern sci­en­tific world.

The sto­ries, all en­gag­ingly writ­ten, bring New­ton’s per­son­al­ity to life. Through his own words we get a real sense of his ut­ter un­pleas­ant­ness. The science is ex­plained well and suc­cinctly, as is much of the his­tor­i­cal con­text for each story.

Less sat­is­fy­ing, I found, was the lack of in­sight into how these traits de­vel­oped. The chap­ter end­ings, too, are prob­lem­atic, with mod­ern sci­en­tific pro­cesses feel­ing overly ide­alised in con­trast to New­ton’s flaws.

The book’s con­clu­sion calls for us to see New­ton as “an ass­hole” but also recog­nise him as a ge­nius. Hav­ing read this book, I won­der if the two – ge­nius and con­temptibil­ity – aren’t more con­nected.

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