Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe
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.