Berlinski, David. Newton's Gift: How Sir Isaac Newton Unlocked the System of the World.
New York: Free Press, 2000.
This book is written by a French mathematician who is determined th explain how Newton's
system works. He is interested only in the math and spends a great deal of these brief pages going
over the basic ideas of the Principia. Thus, for example one gets the three laws explained in some
details and one can see the law of inertia, the law of acceleration and the law of action and
reaction is only a few pages, 96-108. Berlinski throws in, for the modern reader, the Newtonian
explanations of absolute time and space which led to the Einsteinian revolution.
The book is full of the Newtonian "myths" those gawdawful stories which are not true but which
appear time after time in Newton's story. Thus, for example, Berlinski has it that Newton was
born in the year that Galileo died. And since Newton's own father was already dead at his birth,
Berlinski makes that point that he has lost BOTH his fathers at birth!
He has Galileo dropping weights at the Leaning Tower. (See page 36) He has that old apple
bonking his young hero and providing the recognition that physics and astrophysics were the
same study. (p. 2)
Regarding Barrows resignation as the first Lucasian professor, Berlinski suggests: "When
sometime later Isaac Barrow, who had once taught Newton mathematics, determined to resign
the Lucasian professorship at Cambridge in order to pursue theological studies, he understood
that only one man at the university might succeed him." (p. 76) I'd remind the reader that
Barrows resigned to join the king's household as minister, not to study theology.
Berlinski does confuse Newton's universe with one to come long after Newton, with Legrange,
for example, in that Berlinski suggests:
The Newtonian universe is mechanical in the sense that like a clock it is self- sustaining. There is
order everywhere. Planets proceed sedately along their appointed paths, holding themselves in a
state of equipoise. Physical processes take place within an unchanging valut of absolute space
and in accord with unchanging beat of absolute time. Propelling itself through space, the
universal force of gravitation subordinates all material objects to a single modality of attraction.
And all this proceeds in accordance with simple mathematical laws.
Problem is with that view is that it is not Newtonian at all. Newton saw irregularities and
complexities which, he assumed, had to be taken care of by the Almighty. That was the
assignment Newton left for his God and it was one which, to Newton, proved the necessity for
God because the whole did not work without the corrections. It was only with the growth of
French atheism and mathematics that others were to show that the Newtonian clock ran quite
nicely without God.
And this mathematician just can't get over the fact that his idol was a genius. Here's a sample:
There remains the obvious. The work that Newton undertook in the years between 1684-1686
presents the biographer and psychologist with an ineradicable mystery, one that goes beyond the
sheer and irrefutable fact of genius, a fact that we may recognize but that we cannot explain. The
Perincipia is without question our greatest work of pure thought; it is now one of humanity's
collective treasures. It brings to completion the great scientific revolution initiated by Kepler and
Galileo; it contains a matchless combination of mathematical argument and profound physical
intuition. And it constitutes a crucial demonstration of the power of certain mathematical
methods in natural philosophy. Before Newton, no one quite believe that those methods could
provide a comprehensive system of the world; after Newton, no one doubted it. (p. 95)
The blurb suggests that "This is less an exhaustive biography than an appreciation of Newton's
greatest accomplishment." It is certainly not a biography at all but an explanation of some of the
basic mathematics underlying the Principia. Read that way, as an introduction to vectors and so
on, it's tolerable. Otherwise, it is naive in the extreme.
Finally, this Frenchman suggests that Newton's relationship with Fatio de Duillier was
homosexual. This from a guy who has read but few of the biographies of Newton but then is
more impressed with Newton's ideas than his life but nonetheless feels that he can call it
homosexual. Hell, even the Freudians didn't do that. But Berlinski has Newton's mental
breakdown (and his removal from mathematics) in terms of a sexual relationship with Fatio.