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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



Newton

by
Patricia Fara


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Newton



Title: Newton
Author: Patricia Fara
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 277 pages
Availability: Newton - US
Newton - UK
Newton - Canada
  • The Making of Genius
  • With 37 illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting look at the changing images and perceptions of the man

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist . 3-4/2003 Scott Mandelbrote
Nature . 21/11/2002 George Rousseau
The New Criterion . 5/2003 John Derbyshire
New Scientist . 3/8/2002 Harry Collins
The Washington Post F 2/2/2003 Michael Dirda


  From the Reviews:
  • "Fara tells us about the transformation of Newton's image and reputation by philosophers, poets, artists, scientists and bureaucrats. Although this may seem an inclusive list, Fara says relatively little about attitudes toward Newton outside England and almost nothing about the effect that reactions to his alchemical and theological studies have had on his posthumous status." - Scott Mandelbrote, American Scientist

  • "Newton: The Making of Genius gives off a slight whiff of po-mo grievance-mongering, and I suspect Ms. Fara of feminist sympathies, though for the most part she keeps them decently under control. (...) These slight and occasional deformations aside, this is an excellent survey of Newton’s reputation from all angles. The book is nicely produced, with a good index, plentiful notes, and a vast bibliography." - John Derbyshire, The New Criterion

  • "What Fara does is take us from the impure Newton of his own time to the pure specimen we have today. I would have preferred some more systematic analysis but what Fara does, she does well. She simply and clearly describes the trajectory of Newton's image, both metaphorical and literal, in the form of portraits and coins . (...) One would like to say that if Newton had not existed he would have to be invented, but what Fara shows us is that he has been invented." - Harry Collins, New Scientist

  • "So any casual reader would expect a good book, and be deeply and rightly annoyed at the shoddy, ill-organized, repetitive, shallow, droningly dull collection of pages that here passes for a work of popular scholarship." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Newton is more than some mere scientist who died a few centuries ago. His names carries great weight -- and many associations. From vague conceptions of a 'Newtonian universe' to images of falling apples to mind's-eye-pictures of the austere embodiment of rationality, 'Newton' is many things to many people -- and has been, as Patricia Fara shows in her book, many more over the centuries.
       In her brief Preface Fara says that "Newton: The Making of Genius examines how Newton was converted into the world's first scientific genius." More than that, however, it looks at all the transformations that his image (and his scientific reputations) have undergone over the years -- a fascinating premise for a book.
       Still best known for his work in mechanics, optics, and mathematics (as one of the inventors of calculus), and for two books (the Principia and the Opticks), Newton in fact did far, far more. For the last three decades of his life he was first Warden and then Master of the Royal Mint, which was also a powerful political office. He also spent much of his time on research into matters that seem decidedly unscientific -- from biblical chronology to alchemy -- a side of the man largely ignored until relatively recent times.
       As Fara illustrates, Newton (and his work) have constantly been reappraised. Newton himself promoted a certain image of himself, and his followers (as well as his opponents) and others all had an interest in fostering certain images of the man, often changing with the times.
       Parts of the myth remain -- the apple, or Newton standing on giants' shoulders are still familiar. Other images haven't endured: as Fara notes: "Newton the dog-lover and pipe-smoker have disappeared."
       Fara's book is an intellectual history that follows how the image of Newton was shaped and re-shaped over the centuries, often to fit the needs of changing society or even just individuals. As she mentions repeatedly, Newton lived before the term 'scientist' had even been coined. Science, however, soon became very important, and Newton fit (or was made to fit) the image of scientific genius that would then come to be held in such high regard.
       That Newton's own biography is much more complicated than such reductionist portrayals didn't seem to bother many people. Fara argues that one of her book's "central arguments is that no 'true' representation of Newton exists". She suggests he almost defies traditional biography, and none of those available do justice to the man and his entire output (much of which, to further complicate matters, is only now coming to light). Fara discusses and includes many artistic renderings of the great man too, from statues my Dalí and Eduardo Paolozzi (amusingly discussed) to paintings and drawings by Blake, Romney, Cruikshank and others. But, more than most figures, Newton defies such simple representation: there is a lot more to him.
       Fara does a nice job of tracing how and, for the most part, why Newton's image underwent these transformations. From his own lifetime (and including his dispute with Leibniz, interestingly spun out by Fara), to later shifts domestically and abroad (especially in France), to modern changes (including, for example, Einstein using Newton's image to create his own) Fara offers both a good story and a solid (if very full) intellectual history.
       Of particular interest also is the evolving idea of 'genius', which is also central to the book -- and which Fara presents very nicely.
       The book isn't very long, but it is bursting with fascinating figures and titbits. The thirty-six page bibliography hints at what Fara ploughed through; amazing is what riches she found (and is able to stuff into the book). The biggest shame is that she can't go on at greater length about so many of these topics. But she certainly whets the reader's appetite for more.
       The condensation of all this material doesn't always work ideally: in places the book really feels like it is bursting with facts, theories, and interpretations, Fara desperately trying to tie it all together but not having nearly enough space to do so properly. (Still, the overfill is all fun and informative.) Her basic ideas -- of the changing image of the man and the making of the idea of 'genius' -- do come across quite well. Small slips (Goethe seems unlikely to have published his Werther in 1744, given that he was only born in 1749 ...) are cause for some concern, but this remains an exciting, often fascinating book that makes readers want to delve deeper into both Newton's curious life and many of the books Fara refers to.

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Links:

Newton: Reviews: Isaac Newton: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Patricia Fara teaches at Cambridge University.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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