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Remembering a genius

 | April 15, 2011

Isaac Newton the mathematician is a difficult subject to follow but Newton the man is the hero of a new book written with great finesse.


(Newton by Peter Ackroyd) Imagine writing about the man behind a groundbreaking work like Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy or Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin) and at the same time write it in such a way so as to make it palatable and digestible for the readers around the world.

If there was a person who could and would rise to the occasion, it is Peter Ackroyd, the author of one of Britain’s best sellers entitled “London: The Biography”.

If it had been another writer, I would have conveniently ignored a book called “Newton”. Isaac Newton is a familiar name to anyone who even harbours a fleeting relationship with mathematics or science in secondary school.

So what prompted my interest in this book was the name, Peter Ackroyd. Ackroyd is one of those rare writers who have a flair for turning the dull into the exciting, and painting bewitching pictures in your mind long before you have reached the end of the page.

His command of the English language is formidable and eminently abnormal. Born in East Acton, Middlesex, 61 years ago, Ackroyd is a Cambridge graduate who scored a double first in English Literature.

Ackroyd is an A-Lister in the domain of the English Word. His achievements include Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award, James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Somerset Maugham Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

To help a reader of normal intelligence comprehend a mathematical genius like Newton, Ackroyd courageously put himself in his subject’s shoes and forced himself to view the 17th century world through the eyes of the physicist/astronomer/alchemist/theologian’s eyes.

Incisive penmanship

It is not an easy assignment. But credit must surely be given to Ackroyd for studying the minute details of the morose and sometimes taciturn young Englishman who was given to sudden bursts of irrational behaviour.

At Trinity College, Cambridge University, even as a young undergraduate, Newton quickly came to the realisation that he knew more than his tutors.

The Englishman who could make sense of the mathematical field of study like Infinitesimal Calculus, who wrote “The Gravitational Theory” and later produced the “Hypothesis of Light” was a personality that would prove to be daunting for any writer to unravel and analyse.

The admirable quality of “Newton” the book is the Ackroyd’s incisive penmanship that separates the layers of the genius’ lives into numerous clear passages.

Newton the prodigy becomes a much misunderstood brilliant mathematician who was eons ahead of his time. He looked at the Milky Way and saw the infinite possibilities of understanding its mysteries.

In his private life, Newton had struggled with the spirituality of Christianity. At the same time, he delved into the murky subterranean tunnels of alchemy and emerged none the wiser.

But it is Newton the man whom Ackroyd has elaborated upon with great finesse. The reader is made to understand that “the greatest scientific genius of his age” can also be seen to “manifest extraordinary incongruities”.

Good read

In short, here was a man admired by his peers, exalted by the lesser beings, becoming secretive, obsessive and turning into one of the loneliest men in his field.

Perhaps like many other geniuses, Newton was doomed to bloom in solitude and to thrive in a realm denied entry to the lesser mortals.

Ackroyd’s “Newton” is an eminently good read. It distills the abstracts of science and mathematics into tiny capsules of clarity for those who shudder to partake in Mensa tests.

Newton’s character and personality sparked comments while he was alive and even after he had passed away. Luminaries like poet Alexander Pope, philosopher Voltaire, thinker John Locke and romantic poet John Keats were compelled to make observations and to elucidate on the genius who altered the course of the world for the next two centuries.

It was Alexander Pope who wrote:

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in sight

God said ‘let Newton be’ and all was light”

Sometimes it is fortuitous to pick up a book that seems to have an inexplicable allure, and upon finishing it, catches a glimmer of a reflection of the celestial light that had shined upon an ancient genius.


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