Review of the Day: Isaac Newton
If we have Poetry Fridays in the kiddie-lit blogosphere, can we make Non-Fiction Week-ends? I'm just asking since I keep accidentally posting my non-fiction reads on Saturdays. Just a thought, Mr. Fox.
I like science in the way that I like foreign cars. It’s not something I’d usually focus my brain on, but I’m willing to give it some thought should the need arise. As a child, however, my heroes were not scientists. Scientists, I would have told you, are dull as dishwater human beings who never had a poetic or romantic thought in their lives. They were, for me, the epitome of dull dry brilliance. Trust Kathleen Krull then to write about a fellow who manages to prove my personal stereotypes both right and wrong at the same time. You might be able to make a case for Isaac Newton having never had a romantic thought in his life. But dull? Honey, this guy was so wham-bang whizzing crazy that his mere existence itself makes for a fabulous bio. The “Giants of Science” series has a way of making anyone and everyone it touches look interesting. But with Mr. Newton, it sure doesn’t seem like they needed much help.
He was born on Christmas Day in 1642 in rural England. An unwanted child, Isaac was shuttled amongst various relatives and essentially ignored by his mother and stepfather. In fact, his stepfather was so against Isaac’s mere existence that the marriage contract was careful to state that the boy was not allowed even allowed in the man's home. The boy grew up solitary and unendingly curious. He worked for an apothecary at one point, attended Cambridge, and was incredibly religious. He was also, “secretive, vindictive, withdrawn, obsessive, and, oh, yes, brilliant”. With a bit of historical panache, Krull brings Newton’s life into powerful focus. Whether he was erasing all memory of his deceased enemies, staring at the sun in “experiments”, fearing any and all forms of publication, or just making the lives of those around him just a little bit difficult, Newton made up in smarts what he lacked in charm.
Aw, man. This title's good. Heck, even the science in this book makes sense. And what small passages don’t make sense are easily skipped by those readers who wish to learn more about the kind of guy who’d poke things into his eyes for experiments. Having recently finished Joan Dash’s Benjamin Franklin biography, “A Dangerous Engine”, which consisted of wading through deep tracts of scientific jargon, Isaac Newton’s calculus comes across like clarification incarnate.
What I liked most about this book, however, was how much I never knew about this familiar name. For example, Newton’s fear of publication was one of the more interesting aspects to his personality. He didn’t want to publish any of his ideas for fear of someone stealing them. On the other hand, he was absolutely incensed if anyone came up with an idea even a bit close to one of his own theories. In this way, Newton comes across as a spoiled selfish child. He has lots of pretty toys to play with, but he doesn’t want anyone to borrow any of them, even for a little while. He was not prepared for the “sharing-and-getting-feedback part of science”, as Krull puts it. In fact he was so protective that even when he wanted to prove he’d invented calculus first, he explained it in a letter in code. A code that only he had the key to. You can imagine how well THAT went down.
Krull is, by the way, the queen of the fabulous child-friendly bio. If you've not had a chance to read one of her “Lives of the … “ books, consider yourself truly wretched. What sets her apart from other biographers is that she always seems to have the child reader foremost in her mind. As such, these bios become truly interesting, even when their subject is not. Best of all, she’s not one of those biographers that wade about knee deep in speculation, rumor, and hearsay just to fill a few pages. Isaac Newton could have been gay, you say? Perhaps, but while Krull will mention the theory she’ll do so in a way that makes it clear that we have no hard evidence one way or another on the matter. How could we when it was such a dangerous thing to be, back in the 1600s? The book even brings up the occasional contemporary reference as well. When Isaac first comes to Cambridge, Krull compares what he must have felt to, “the thrill that entering Hogwarts School was to the young Harry Potter”. Clear as crystal, that feeling. And when Newton is at last in charge of the Royal Society? Krull describes his reign as “slimy”, and no word could possibly be better suited to his actions.
And none of what I’ve mentioned even touches on how Newton used to work long and hard on alchemy, or served in Parliament and never said a word, or even how he only did so-so in school. With Ms. Krull to guide us, the reader sees both the good and the bad in this brilliant man. If nothing else, this book would be well-worth considering since it shows that you can be a genius and a jerk all at the same time. Brilliance does not preclude nastiness. As scientific bios go, this is a top notch addition to any and all libraries. Perhaps the finest children’s biography of Newton ever conceived. Top drawer! Top drawer.