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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

Life After Gravity

Patricia Fara

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

To purchase Life After Gravity

Title: Life After Gravity
Author: Patricia Fara
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 240 pages
Availability: Life After Gravity - US
Life After Gravity - UK
Life After Gravity - Canada
directly from: Oxford University Press
  • Isaac Newton's London Career
  • With numerous color plates and illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : a wealth of fascinating material and personalities, quite well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 11/3/2021 Marcus Berkmann
Literary Review . 3/2021 John Gribbin
Nature . 24/3/2021 Andrew Robinson

  From the Reviews:
  • "She is not just writing about Newton, she is painting a portrait of the age in which he lived, worked, schmoozed and manoeuvred. (...) She also writes with an elegance and a wit you don't generally associate with history books." - Marcus Berkmann, Daily Mail

  • "(A) fresh, fascinating study of his London career" - Andrew Robinson, Nature

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:

       Isaac Newton is still best-remembered as a Cambridge academic, a scientist affiliated with a renowned university where he made the scientific discoveries that secured his reputation as not just one of the greatest thinkers of his but of all time. He was, however, far from the textbook example of a pure thinker who is satisfied leading the life of a quiet scholar in some remote intellectual enclave: as Patricia Fara reminds us, he long itched to escape Cambridge, and when an appropriate opportunity arose in London was only too happy to abandon it, never looking back. In chronicling the last decades of his life, following Isaac Newton's London Career, Fara presents a man very active in and very much in the thick of the political, commercial, and social life of the day. Far from being a retiring soul, Newton fully embraced the busy-ness and bustle of London and fully took advantage of being at the seat of so much power and influence.
       Fara's approach in Life After Gravity is an interesting one. As she explains (in bold type, too, so readers really don't miss the point) in her Prologue:

     This book has two subject: Isaac Newton's three decades in London, and a picture by William Hogarth that is packed with Newtonian references.
       The Hogarth-painting is 'The Indian Emperor. Or The Conquest of Mexico. As performed in the year 1731 in Mr. Conduitt's, Master of the Mint before the Duke of Cumberland &c. Act 4, Scene 4'; see, for example, the Robert Dodd print.
       [Life After Gravity includes a collection of twenty-one color prints, including one of this painting; these are all presented together in a middle-of-the-book insert. Black-and-white prints of these same illustrations are also presented throughout, accompanying the text -- these printed close to the corresponding parts of Fara's narrative --, meaning that each illustration is presented twice. Though a somewhat curious arrangement, it's not unwelcome: it's convenient to have the relevant illustrations right by the text, with a richer colour photograph to then later turn to to get a better impression. Unfortunately, however, many of the black-and-white prints are extremely heavy on the black, meaning many of the details can barely be made out (so, for example, with the Hogarth that opens the book and which Fara relies on so heavily). Fortunately, there are those corresponding color plates that are sharp, clear, and bright enough to turn to, but it sort of defeats the purpose of (re)presenting them in black-and-white .....]
       The scene depicted in the Hogarth painting takes place in 1732 -- i.e. after Newton's death -- but he is still a prominent presence in it -- most obviously: the prominent bust of Newton that overlooks the entire scene. As Fara points out, however, there are numerous other Newtonian allusions and references to be found in the painting, as well as many personal connections. In exploring these, Fara produces a fascinating overview of English life -- especially in terms of politics and commerce -- in those times.
       Newton is the central figure in Fara's account, but as she chronicles his London career she also turns at greater length to those in his various circles, to varying degrees less familiar figures whose lives and paths, as presented here, add to Fara's rich portrait of those times. These include Catherine Barton -- referred to as Newton's niece -- and the man she married, John Conduitt, who would succeeed Newton at the Mint and was also instrumental in securing Newton's legacy. (Not that Newton would easily have been forgotten, but Conduitt certainly helped ensure that Newton considered to receive his due.) Others include people ranging from Caroline of Ansbach -- who became Queen as the wife of King George II -- to John Theophilus Desaguliers, their lives intersecting with Newton's but also fascinating in their own right. (The tug between some of theses figures' stories and remaining focused on Newton is occasionally a challenge, but, far-ranging though Fara's work is, she keeps it tightly circumscribed; at times, one wishes there might be more about these other figures; certainly, she piques the readers interest about them.)
       Fara is particularly good at presenting the position of women in these times. Legally essentially the property of men (husbands, fathers, or other relatives), and with limited possibilities given the constraints imposed on them in these times, Fara also shows how some were able to navigate these circumstances and assert themselves in a variety of (often impressive) ways.
       While there is a lot of material to draw on, Fara acknowledges that much about Newton's life isn't well-documented and only known in general outlines. (There's also the mess of Newton's own writings, as she repeatedly complains about his habit of writing on anything at hand -- notably, previously used pieces of paper -- and not (at all ...) organizing his papers in any systematic way; as she notes: "When he died, he left behind him a huge assortment of disorganized manuscripts, between them carrying around eleven million words".) Nevertheless, much can be gleaned from the available record, from the scientific and often very personal disputes Newton continued to engage in to the comfortable lifestyle he enjoyed.
       Fara can point out that:
     Whatever his habits may have been in Cambridge, plenty of evidence suggests that in London Newton enjoyed eating and entertaining for many years before he became too old and ill. Contradicting the myths of being an absent-minded, down-at-heel academic, this metropolitan Newton was clearly a big spender.
       Both as Master of the Mint and personally, Newton showed a keen interest in money-matters, and Fara is very good in describing the larger economic issues of the day -- including the difficulty the government had in in any way controlling actual, physical money, with silver coins winding up as bullion abroad, for example. Newton also invested his money in commercial ventures -- not always wisely, as his enthusiasm for South Sea stock suggests (at one point making up 40 per cent of his wealth). Fara writes from a contemporary perspective and makes a point of noting just how much British wealth derived from colonial exploitation -- and, in particular, the slave trade. Her observations about the economic policies and conditions of the time, and the inequalities that they led to, do still have, as she suggests, relevance in our time, and make for an interesting part of the portrait of Newton and his times she presents.
       Newton was also president of the Royal Society from 1703 to his death and Fara describes his activity there as well as the continuing scientific activity -- and, especially disputes -- he was involved in. The intellectual debates of the day often became very personal (and/or, it can sometimes seem, Newton reveled in taking them that way), and it's quite amusing to see just how ... strong-willed Newton could be regarding some of these, as with perpetual thorn-in-the-side Leibniz.
       Fara's two-track approach -- describing Newton's life in London and riffing off of the Hogarth painting -- doesn't always gel. One understands the temptation of working off of the Hogarth -- indeed, Fara could as easily have built the entire book off of that -- but as is there's something of the feel of two separate works somewhat awkwardly spliced together. Nevertheless, the rich material -- Newton and his circles; the England of the times -- makes for an engaging read, with Fara offering a wealth of information and insight.
       Life After Gravity is compact, and there's much one would want to learn more about, but the overview Fara provides is impressively broad and multifaceted, making for an interesting, penetrating slice of history, personal and generally.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 April 2021

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Life After Gravity: Reviews: Isaac Newton: Patricia Fara: Other books by Patricia Fara under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Patricia Fara teaches at Cambridge University.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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