James Gleick has written a gem of a book on the most unpromising subject — the life of Isaac Newton. Newton is still revered as the one who carried the torch lit by Copernicus (who died in 1543) and Galileo (who died in the year of Newton's birth) into the eighteenth and later centuries: the Earth, they all said, is not the centre of the Universe. But Newton did much more than that: he put forth a view of how the world works that is, broadly speaking, what we still believe. He made science modern.

James Gleick
Fourth Estate
288 pp

Why should one who did all that be 'an unpromising' subject for a best-seller, which Gleick's book deserves to be? The standard view is that too little is known of Newton's life to make his genius understandable. Gleick, who boasts a New York Times affiliation, has done what journalists should do in such situations - he has read every document in sight, not only for the guts of what they say but for their incidental information. His notes and list of sources add 70 pages to the commendably brief text of 200 pages. Gleick's is a scholarly work as well as an absorbing read.

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas day 1642 (on the pre-Gregorian calendar) in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. His father, also "Isaac", had been a yeoman, meaning that he collected rent from a handful of tenant farmers and kept sheep himself. He died months before his namesake's birth. Three years later, Newton's mother, Hannah, married a well-heeled clergyman from the neighbourhood, who made it a pre-nuptial condition that his stepson should not share his roof. Seven years later, Hannah was back, a widow for the second time, and promptly sent ten-year old Isaac off to school at Grantham, where he lodged with the town's apothecary.

It does not take a psychoanalyst to see in this cruel childhood the roots of Newton's strange adult behaviour - his secretiveness about his discoveries, his rage at even minor criticism, his determination to crush his enemies at least with sarcasm, often by manipulating events to ensure them bad luck. Gleick also paints him, in his closing years, as a ruthless Master of the Royal Mint, rarely pardoning those sent to the gallows for counterfeiting and other crimes against the currency, of which Newton had become the guardian. But Gleick has evidently set his face against psychologising, which is a minor pity.

The magic is in the work that Newton did and the manner in which he did it. He began his lifelong habit of keeping notebooks while at school; fortunately, many of them have survived. From one, Gleick quotes schoolboy Newton's lament for himself:

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; What imployment is he fit for? What is hee good for? I will make an end. I cannot but weepe. I know not what to doe.

After a calamitous attempt to run the family farm for his mother, his relatives used their influence to have him admitted in 1661 to Trinity College, Cambridge. Gleick, by a close reading of a section of one of Newton's notebooks headed (in Latin), 'Some philosophical questions', makes a good case for believing that Newton already knew the agenda for his life's work, even down to the explanation of the tides by the gravitational attraction of the Moon and Sun.

There followed another calamity: the Plague. In 1665, the colleges of Cambridge effectively shut down, and Newton built himself a study at Woolsthorpe and retreated there to turn himself into Europe's outstanding (and self-taught) mathematician. He began by solving algebraic equations in general terms, then by constructing tangents, the maxima and minima of the curves represented by the equations and then invented the differential calculus under the name of 'fluxions'. It was a small step from there to begin to formulate what were later called the Laws of Mechanics. The same sabbatical saw Newton's first attempts on his theory of universal gravity, the foundation of his theory of colour and of light itself. Newton was by then the whole of twenty-four.

The Plague ended, Newton went back to Cambridge to cultivate a reputation by the oddest of strategies: the knowledge he had accumulated during the Plague was dribbled out to inquirers asking for the solution of specific problems. He even edited for publication the lectures of his professor, one Isaac Barton, and accepted a fulsome paragraph of praise in the printed version, without disclosing to the author that the whole foundation of the work was mistaken.

Newton then fell out with Robert Hooke, one of the founders of the Royal Society and soon to become its secretary. Newton had been inveigled into publishing his explanation of the rainbow, asserting that the colours of the rainbow are generated from white light (as from the Sun) merely because they are "differently refrangible". Hooke took the view that the prism does something active to the light, and called Newton's explanation "an hypothesis". Newton promptly announced his resignation from the Royal Society, complaining about the "rudeness" he had been shown. (Newton was forgiven his dues, but remained an absentee member almost until Hooke was dead and he was elected President in 1703.)

There are there other matters to be dealt with, two of them mildly embarrassing. First, Newton was an alchemist and built a lean-to shed against the wall of King's College chapel for his experiments. Gleick excuses this on the proper grounds that people had not then distinguished between the magical and rational aspects of chemistry.

Second, it is common knowledge that Newton spent inordinate amounts of his time at Cambridge on religious pursuits. What could such a rational man, one who refused the sacrament of the Church on his deathbed, have found so absorbing in the Gospels? Gleick suggests that his goal was to apply rational analysis to theological doctrine. Certainly Newton (with his contemporary and correspondent, John Locke) came to reject the doctrine of the Trinity, but that is only small potatoes.

Finally, there is the matter of the Principiae, Newton's ultimate statement of how the world works. This awesome work of three Latin volumes was prised out of Newton by Edmund Halley (of the comet), with occasional goads from Hooke. The work was completed in two years of virtually non-stop labour. Halley bounced the Royal Society into publishing 750 copies and for his pains was lumbered with the bill. In due course the whole world knew that the revolution begun by Copernicus had been encoded in mathematics.

By 1813, when the second edition appeared, ordinary mortals could see the Principia for themselves. Immediately there were arguments. How can this force of gravity pull objects together with nothing, not even an aether, in between? Eminently sane Gleick insists that nothing that has happened since - not even Einstein's relativity or quantum mechanics, has done more than embellish Newton's grand concept. Not bad for "a little fellow" who does not know "what imployment is he fit for?"

Isaac Newton is available from Amazon (UK)