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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Isaac Newton

James Gleick

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To purchase Isaac Newton

Title: Isaac Newton
Author: James Gleick
Genre: Biography
Written: 2003
Length: 191 pages
Availability: Isaac Newton - US
Isaac Newton - UK
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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, compact biographical overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 27/1/2004 Peter Spinks
Daily Telegraph . 25/8/2003 Andy Martin
The Economist B+ 21/8/2003 .
Financial Times . 15/8/2003 Vincent Boland
The Guardian A+ 30/8/2003 John Banville
The Independent A 8/9/2003 Steve Connor
The LA Times . 20/7/2003 Timothy Ferris
New Scientist A 19/7/2003 Graham Farmelo
The NY Rev. of Books A 3/7/2003 Freeman Dyson
The NY Times B 14/7/2003 Ed Regis
The NY Times Book Rev. A 15/6/2003 Owen Gingerich
The Observer . 7/9/2003 Robin McKie
Salon . 4/6/2003 Farhad Manjoo
Science . 15/8/2003 Patricia Fara
San Francisco Chronicle . 1/6/2003 Melody Herr
The Spectator . 6/9/2003 Alexander Masters
Sydney Morning Herald . 6/12/2003 James Woodford

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "(E)nthralling and concise (.....) If you are short on time, however, Gleick may be your biographer of choice." - Peter Spinks, The Age

  • "Gleick, with admirable clarity and concision and lightness of touch, gives us a distinctly pro-Newtonian account of the author of the magisterial Principia, rather as if a biographer of Napoleon hymned all the virtues of the French Empire." - Daily Telegraph, Andy Martin

  • "Mr Gleick's book is more properly an essay or an appreciation of Newton's revolutionary work, written with enormous enthusiasm and verve and in a style that is often closer to poetry than prose. (...) At the book's start, its beauty and conciseness seem bewitching; by then end, the reader begins to feel it may have been too easy and too thin." - The Economist

  • "His admirable new biography is perhaps the most accessible to date. He is an elegant writer, brisk without being shallow, excellent on the essence of the work, and revealing in his account of Newton's dealings with the times and with the men -- admiring, dubious, downright hostile -- with whom he condescended to interact." - Vincent Boland, Financial Times

  • "(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." - John Banville, The Guardian

  • "What is wonderful about this short book is that it leaves you hungry for more insight into the man who changed the course of science. Gleick tells the tale like the professional storyteller he is. The only criticism is that he tells it too well and too briefly. I wanted to know more." - Steve Connor, The Independent

  • "Isaac Newton is an elegantly written, insightful work that brings Newton to life and does him justice. Its brevity, which may or may not have been premeditated, seems to have resulted from a rare and relentless insistence on saying solely what can be said confidently and afresh. (...) Gleick proves to be not only a sound explicator of Newton's science but also a capable literary stylist, whose understated empathy with his subject lets us almost see through Newton's eyes." - Timothy Ferris, The Los Angeles Times

  • "For my money this is Gleick's best book, and without question the finest short life of science's most perplexing figure." - Graham Farmelo, New Scientist

  • "For the casual reader with a serious interest in Newton's life and work, I recommend Gleick's biography as an excellent place to start. It has three important virtues. It is accurate, it is readable, and it is short." - Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books

  • "As literature, Mr. Gleick's book is elegant, even jewel-like. He does not waste a word. But as science writing, too much of the book is written in epigrams, and the clarity of its explanations suffers as a result." - Ed Regis, The New York Times

  • "Isaac Newton is now the biography of choice for the interested layman. (...) While Gleick achieves an excellent balance among color, detail and narrative flow, sometimes the trees conceal the forest." - Owen Gingerich, The New York Times Book Review

  • "James Gleick, I am pleased to say, makes the most of his extraordinary material, providing us with a deftly crafted vision of the great mathematician as a creator, and victim, of his age. (...) The result is a book that is a perfect antidote to the many vast, bloated scientific biographies that currently flood the market -- and also acts a superb starting point for anyone interested in the life of one of the world's few, undisputed geniuses." - Robin McKie, The Observer

  • "Gleick has done a fine job of recreating intellectual life in Britain at the end of the 17th century. (...) Gleick has not been able to escape viewing his subject from the present." - Science, Patricia Fara

  • "Gleick’s book has no mathematics in it, which is a shame; but it is an excellent introduction to the confusing spirit of the man." - Alexander Masters, The Spectator

  • "This book made me appreciate my own comparatively ignorant and impractical mind -- give me my friends and unquestioning enjoyment of colour, wind and nature over Newtonian genius any day." - James Woodford, Sydney Morning Herald

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:

       James Gleick's biography of Isaac Newton is a mere 191 pages long. So much of a man -- and so many achievements -- and so little of a book ? (Forty-eight pages of (often informative) notes and eighteen pages of acknowledgements and sources only reinforce the feeling that Gleick is merely skimming the surface.)
       Despite leading what might appear to be an uninteresting personal life -- lacking both romance and adventure (Gleick suggests Newton never even ventured so far as to "set eyes on the ocean") -- Newton was one of the intellectual giants of recent times and he certainly kept busy. He contributed significantly to the advancement of science and mathematics, ran the English Mint (overseeing and implementing changes that make the debate over embracing the euro look absolutely trivial), and wrote extensively on theology and alchemy. He may not have experienced a great deal -- travelled, loved -- but he did do a great deal, and one of the things Gleick conveys quite well is how incredibly industrious Newton was. (He also wasn't quite as removed from the world at large as is generally thought, especially during his years leading the Mint and the Royal Society.)
       Gleick races formidably along in his book. Newton did a great deal, and Gleick at least makes an effort to list all his accomplishments, occasionally explaining more about particular discoveries, debates, and activities, but never getting bogged down anywhere. Gleick does all this very well: the presentation is clear, there is a great deal of information, and it reads well. Gleick compresses information into what seems like the smallest possible space, and he doesn't dally. The science -- especially the great leaps Newton made --, the friendships and enmity and competition, the scholarly and scientific life of the day: one gets a good impression of it all.
       Gleick quotes extensively, generally to good effect (though occasionally one suspects the old-English quotes are there just for that: a bit of theatrical effect), and he explains the science well too (without going into too much detail). He makes a lot out of Newton's curious penchant for secrecy ("He noted the results and told no one" is a recurrent theme) He's good on the personal relationships too, especially Newton's running feud with Robert Hooke (which Gleick has more fun with than the better-known Newton-Leibniz dispute). There are some wonderful details -- such as that Newton preferred "A.C." to "A.D." (he didn't believe in the holy Trinity, and so felt it was inappropriate to say "in the year of our Lord" and considered it in the year of Christ instead).
       It's a whirlwind tour, however, and Gleick skips over some things too quickly, notably Newton's odd alchemical pre-occupations. Like many authors, he appears simply not to know how to reconcile this with the scientific image of Newton that has been carefully cultivated over the past centuries, and so he only makes quick mention of it.
       While Gleick writes well, he also gets carried away on occasion (especially in striving to be succinct):

Lonely and dissocial as his world was, it was not altogether uninhabited; he communed night and day with forms, forces, and spirits, some real, some imagined.
       Isaac Newton is a good, quick, packed read. One gets a good sense of Newton's accomplishments, and some of the man himself as well.
       Gleick presents Newton's life about as well as one could conceive it being presented in 191 pages But that's the problem with the book too. Newton's life and accomplishment simply don't fit in such a circumscribed space. There are pages where almost each sentence seems a summary of what should be a whole chapter. Far from living an empty, boring life Newton's was overfull, and while Gleick offers a glimpse of the outlines there's clearly so much more to it. (At least Gleick provides an excellent bibliography that the now eager reader can use as a starting point for really exploring this fascinating man's life.)
       An excellent effort, but a misguided endeavour.

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Isaac Newton: Reviews: Isaac Newton: James Gleick: Other books by James Gleick under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer James Gleick was born in 1954. He has written numerous acclaimed books, generally on science-related subjects.

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© 2003-2021 the complete review

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