The Magus

John Banville applauds a biography of Isaac Newton that doesn't neglect his study of alchemy

Saturday August 30, 2003
The Guardian

Isaac Newton
by James Gleick
288pp, Fourth Estate, £15

The term "lonely genius" could have been coined for Isaac Newton. His father died before he was born. When he was three years old, his mother remarried and went to live with her new husband, abandoning the child to the care of his grandmother. As a boy he was solitary, as a youth secretive, as an adult reclusive.

The man whose scientific imagination knew no bounds lived out the first half of his life between his chambers in Trinity College, Cambridge, and a rented room in London; a late foray into society, and even into parliament, sent him scurrying back to his chambers for shelter. Although he confessed to his diary that, like a fasting monk, he was prone to "apparitions of weomen & their shapes", he died a virgin. "Solitude," James Gleick observes, "was the essential part of his genius."

It is not too much to say that our world was founded by Newton. After Einstein's discovery of relativity, the popular imagination conceived the notion that henceforth we would inhabit a time-space continuum in which the atom would be the arbiter of everything, spacemen would return to earth younger than they were when they left, and apples might fall upwards from the bough.

But ours is a Newtonian reality, and always will be. He took our human measure, and he is our yardstick. Einstein himself revered Newton, whose portrait was the only one he kept on the wall above his desk in his office at Princeton. "Fortunate Newton," he exclaimed, "happy childhood of science. Nature to him was an open book. He stands before us strong, certain, and alone."

Gleick, in his concise and masterly new biography, states the case with characteristic directness. Newton, he writes, "was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity. He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos. He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact. He established principles, and they are called his laws."

Yet throughout his long life Newton continued to experiment in alchemy; indeed, he was, as Gleick writes, "the peerless alchemist of Europe". These studies in the dark art were conducted in deepest secrecy, and did not come to light until centuries after his death, when a large portion of his papers were reassembled. The economist John Maynard Keynes, the saviour of much of this documentation, was astonished by what he read. "Newton," Keynes told his students at Trinity, "was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians."

Isaac Newton was born in 1642 in the village of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. His father's people were yeomen - Isaac senior was an illiterate farmer - but his mother, Hannah Ayscough, was of gentler stock. The late-feudal England of Newton's childhood and youth was torn by rebellion and warfare; the revolution began the year he was born, and he was six when Charles I was executed.

Young Isaac attended the village dame school, where he learned his sums and studied the Bible; thus were founded the two great obsessions of his life, mathematics and religious speculation. He was lonely, unhappy, given to impotent rages in which he threatened to burn the house down on the heads of his absent mother and his stepfather, the wealthy rector Barnabas Smith, whom he hardly knew and thoroughly hated.

When Isaac was 10 his mother returned to Woolsthorpe, bringing three new children from her second marriage. At once her firstborn was dispatched to the King's School at Grantham, eight miles away, where he was lodged with the local apothecary. In an exercise book he recorded his misery in a heartbreaking stream of consciousness: "A little fellow; My poore help; Hee is paile; There is no room for me to sit; In the top of the house - In the bottom of Hell . . . I know not what to doe."

Abandoned and alone in the midst of his schoolfellows, he turned to solitary speculation, the only consolation available. In muscularly poetic fashion Gleick conjures the boy's beady investigations: "On bright days sunlight crept along the wall. Darkness as well as light seemed to fall from the window - or was it from the eye? No one knew. The sun projected slant edges, a dynamic echo of the window frame in light and shadow, sometimes sharp and sometimes blurred, expressing a three-dimensional geometry of intersecting planes."

At the age of 16 Isaac was taken from school and brought back to Woolsthorpe to tend the family farm. However, his enlightened former teacher at King's School, Henry Stokes, who had spotted the boy's as yet unfocused brilliance, joined with Isaac's maternal uncle, the Reverend William Ayscough, in arranging for him to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was admitted in June 1661.

True to form, his mother, widowed again and now wealthy, declined to fund his studies, and he entered Cambridge as a subsizar, the lowest form of college life, doing menial tasks and living off the leftovers of wealthier students. Once again there was nothing for it but to retreat into the fastnesses of his mind.

At the end of 1664 a comet appeared in the sky over Cambridge, a portent that was followed by an outbreak of plague. Newton retired to Woolsthorpe. The year of pestilence was to prove a wondrous one for science. Still in his early 20s, Newton set to work on formulating a wholly new mathematics, inventing the infinitesimal calculus along the way. Gleick sees the interval at Woolsthorpe as the "transfiguration" of Newton. "Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world's paramount mathematician."

It is hard for us today to appreciate the greatness of Newton's achievement. Before him, approximations sufficed. Even the great ones such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo floundered in a morass of imprecision. Everything was in flux, from the measurement of time to the spelling of proper names. There were not even fixed postal addresses - one of Newton's letters to the secretary of the Royal Society was directed "To Mr Henry Oldenburge at his house about the middle of the old Palmail in St Jamses Fields in Westminster".

What Newton perceived was the paramount need for rigour. "Hypotheses non fingo" was his proud claim - I do not devise hypotheses. Science must be a matter of fact. Yet as his alchemical studies showed him, everything is process: life and death, growth and decay, collapse and regeneration. "All things are corruptible," he wrote. "All things are generable."

We tend to think of Newton as the great conservator, the great law-giver, but in fact he was a radical and a revolutionary. He embraced with placid certitude the notion of action at a distance, a scandal to the Johnsonian stone-kickers of his time. The theory of gravitation, the force that pulls the planets out of their natural tendency to travel in straight lines and moulds them into their elliptical orbits, was the pinnacle of his achievement.

After the publication in 1687 of his masterwork, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he posited a new cosmology, he at last ventured into the public world and, as Gleick writes, "began to develop into the 18th-century icon of later legend". He was by now world-famous - Voltaire, no idolator, wrote of him with awe, and, incidentally, instituted the myth of the Newtonian apple - and increasingly wealthy.

In 1700 he was appointed master of the Royal Mint, in which capacity he proved a relentless hunter-down of counterfeiters, pursuing not a few of them to the gallows. He bought a house in Jermyn Street and furnished it in shades of crimson, and took on his niece, Catherine Barton, as housekeeper. He engaged in public squabbles with his peers, especially Leibniz, over whom he claimed precedence in the invention of the calculus - in fact, both men discovered it independently and simultaneously. He died at the age of 84, in great pain, from a kidney stone.

Gleick, the author of a number of popularising science books, including a well-known one on chaos theory, has here produced a masterpiece of brevity and concentration. Isaac Newton sees its angular subject in the round, presenting him as scientist and magician, believer and heretic, monster and man. Despite the book's economy of scope, it will surely stand as the definitive study for a very long time to come. Fortunate Newton!

· John Banville's Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City will be published by Bloomsbury in September.

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