James Gleick’s “Isaac Newton” a great introduction

After reading Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle, I became very interested to learn more about some the historical figures around whom the story revolved – Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, John Wilkens, Christopher Wren, …, and Isaac Newton, the founders and early members of the Royal Society. Given my interest in physics, optics, and math, especially Isaac Newton.

Fortunately for me, James Gleick‘s biography of Newton, simply titled Isaac Newton, was published earlier that year (2003). Gleick was not new to me – both Chaos: Making a New Science and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, have a place on my bookshelves – so I had high hopes for his biography of Newton. I was not disappointed.

Chances are you’ve heard of Isaac Newton, if for nothing else than the fact that he came up with the idea of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree. (Which, by the way, is a vast oversimplification.) You may have even heard of his 3 laws of motion or that he invented – some might say discovered – the calculus. You may even think that he invented calculus so he could figure out his laws of motion. (As it turns out, he used geometry.)

Newton didn’t actually publish – or care to publish – his work in mathematics, or anything else, until someone else published similar work. Unlike the rest of the fellows of the Royal Society, who were interested in sharing their new found knowledge as much as possible, Newton experimented and discovered and wrote to satisfy his own curiosity, not that of anyone else.  Only in the very recent past have the many documents of Newton come to light, and it is through these many documents that Gleick tells this unique story of arguably the greatest mind ever.

Considering the subject, the book is relatively short with just under 200 pages of main text and about 50 pages of notes. It is a pretty quick read, though I did find that flipping back and forth to the end notes tended to slow me down. And if you are looking for detailed discussion and analysis of the actual content of Newton’s various writings, this is not your book.

If, however, you want to gain an understanding of what drove Newton, of why he wanted to figure things out, and get a glimpse into his incredible mind, this is an excellent book with which to begin.

The Great Debate

I was catching up on some news this evening, reading about stem cells here in Missouri, with iTunes on shuffle, as usual. About half way through the article, Dream Theater‘s song The Great Debate (from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence) came on. I had to stop and listen.

If you know the song, you know that it is a discussion about then-President Bush’s decision concerning stem cells back in 2001. Here’s what wikipedia has to say about the song:

The Great Debate” is an innovative song by the progressive metal band Dream Theater dealing with the topic of stem cell research. It opens with various sound bytes of individuals’ beliefs and opinions concerning this contentious topic. Both sides of this debate are represented lyrically, and the band challenges the listener repeatedly with the chorus phrase- “Are you justified in taking life to save life?” and “Do we look to our Unearthly Guide?…or to white coat heroes, searching for a cure?”

What really struck me is how little seems to have changed in the last 7 1/2 years.  Consider these verses from the song:

What if someone said
Promise lies ahead
Hopes are high in certain scientific circles
Life won’t have to end
You could walk again

What if someone said
Problems lie ahead
They’ve uncovered something highly controversial
The right to life is strong
Can’t you see it’s wrong

Or, as they say toward the end of the song, miracle potential vs. the sanctity of life. Much the same as what is being said this week.

The stem cell debate reminds me quite a bit of another great debate:  vaccines and autism.  Though the substance of the two debates is different, they are qualitatively very similar: no matter what evidence or arguments are presented, it is very unlikely that you will ever change the opinion of someone who actually has an opinion.