Never at rest. A biography of Isaac Newton. Reprint. (English) Zbl 0532.01023

Cambridge Paperback Library. Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press. XVIII, 908 p. £12.50 (1983).
This is a paperback edition of the biography first published in 1980. In fifteen chapters, the author traces the personal life of Newton and the full range of his intellectual activities, including his concerns with theology and alchemy, besides his public service as Warden and later Master of the Mind. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the contributions to mathematics and science for which Newton is remembered today. Although there is a wealth of detail, this is arranged with considerable skill to show the principal stages of the genesis and development of Newton’s concepts and theories in the context of his scientific career.
The biography proper begins in the second chapter, after an introduction describing the recent discoveries in mathematics and science that Newton would meet in Cambridge. At this time the level of teaching at the University was low but there was also a lack of insistence on formal requirements. These circumstances are seen by the author as advantages for a student of Newton’s ability and solitary nature, for they gave him the opportunity to study the most recent discoveries in mathematics and natural sciences on his own. In the author’s view, however, the usual accounts of Newton’s discoveries during the time he was away from Cambridge because of the Plague fail to take account of the continuity of his development. For although he had laid the foundations of his work in mathematics, mechanics and optics by the end of 1666, years of thinking were still needed to achieve the results on which his reputation depends.
Early in 1672, he sent to Oldenburg the letter containing his explanation of colours, which established his reputation in the world of natural philosophy, and soon afterwards he was engaged in the correspondence with Leibniz (through Oldenburg) which later led to the priority dispute concerning the invention of the calculus. In 1679, after a period of several years in which he was absorbed in the study of theology and alchemy, the unwanted correspondence with Hooke brought him back to the problem of planetary motion. Then Halley’s visit to Cambridge in August 1684 changed the course of his life by determining his resolve to write and publish the Principia. Meanwhile, under the influence of alchemy, his philosophy of nature had undergone a profound change, which the author describes and analyses. Later chapters cover the preparation of the second and third editions of the Principia, his depressive illness of 1693, his presidency of the Royal Society and the priority dispute with Leibniz. The work concludes with a bibliographical essay, which serves as an introduction to the literature, and an index.
The author has written an excellent biography, in which he presents a balanced view, thoroughly documented and based on a profound knowledge of the primary sources and secondary literature. However, it seems the reviewer that there are a few important points on which further comment might be helpful. The first concerns the author’s claim that the ”Hypothesis concerning the properties of light”, communicated to Oldenburg in 1675, ”contains the first hint of the concept of universal gravitation in Newton’s papers”. Now Newton’s hypothesis explains how heavy bodies are impelled to the earth (or planets to the sun) but there is no suggestion that the earth (or sun) is impelled in the opposite direction, nor that terrestrial bodies are impelled towards one another.
Another important issue concerns the author’s description of Section IX of Book II of the Principia, attacking vortices, as the ”coup de grâce” to Cartesian natural philosophy. Newton first supposes that the layers of the vortex are solid, then claims that making them fluid will leave the motion unchanged, adding as an afterthought that ”there must be some cause operating to retain the several particles in their circles”. This must surely cast doubt on his ability to refute the vortex theory by sound dynamical argument.
Finally, it is a question of fundamental importance whether Newton, as the author asserts, succeeded in deriving Kepler’s three laws. In the first edition of the Principia, having demonstrated the inverse square law of force for a body moving in an ellipse, hyperbola or parabola, he states (without proof) as a corollary, that a body moving under a centripetal force varying inversely as the square of the distance must describe a conic section. Newton himself certainly regarded the result as established and in the second edition he added an outline of a geometrical demonstration. Yet the absence of a demonstration in the first edition of the Principia of the answer that Newton presumably gave to Halley - that under an inverse-square law of centripetal force, a planet would move in an ellipse - remains an intriguing problem.
Reviewer: E.J.Aiton


01A70 Biographies, obituaries, personalia, bibliographies
01-02 Research exposition (monographs, survey articles) pertaining to history and biography
70-03 History of mechanics of particles and systems
26-03 History of real functions

Biographic References:

Newton, I.