White contributes a critical analysis of previous biographers of Newton, while at the same time interjecting many speculations and assertions of his own. This makes for very lively and entertaining reading, but it leaves a less than satisfactory taste in the mouths of those looking for a scientific biography written scientifically. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer is hard to put down and at the same time hard to fully believe.
Among the discoveries White claims to unearth is the assertion that Newton had at least one homosexual relationship. He quotes from several letters written to and from White's most likely 'suspect'--Nicholas Fatio de Duillier. Unfortunately, the letters had portions of them clipped off so the full meaning is impossible to garner. Newton had a document burning session before his death so a completely accurate picture of the man will never be painted.
Newton was clearly involved in numerous activities that modern scientists ignore. He was an alchemist and analyzer of Biblical prophecy. Indeed, White tries to show that his interest and dedication to alchemy is what ultimately allowed him to produce his masterworks The Principia and Opticks. Alchemy is partially responsible "for the development of laboratory equipment and techniques still used by the modern chemist." (p. 123) White feels that "his deep immersion in alchemical experiment and the ancient roots of theology must now have influenced his thinking towards a broader view of the universe, offering him possibilities beyond the realm of orthodox teaching and accepted philosophy". (p. 161) Conversely, his Biblical studies led him to believe that Jesus Christ would return in 1948. While Newton had the ability to go beyond the orthodoxy, he was still a product of his times.
Those interested in science feuds will find their fair share in Newton's life. Chapter 13, which deals with Newton's feud with Leibniz over which of them discovered calculus, is engaging and well done.
Overall, this is an interesting read about a fascinating subject. The final chapter is poorly done and the occasional psycho-analysis will annoy some, but the bulk of the work will be appreciated by many.
from the publisher:
It is no exaggeration to say that almost everything we do in the modern world is based on Newton's enormous scientific achievements-but he was not the pure scientist of lore. Unknown to all but a few, Newton was a practicing alchemist who dabbled with the occult. He did not discover gravity by watching an apple fall-in reality, Newton's great theories were grasped within the charred base of the crucible and the alchemist's fire. Nor was Newton the idealistic puritan that he has always been seen as, but a tortured, obsessive character who risked his health in a ceaseless quest for an understanding of the universe through whatever means at his disposal.
"Neither sensationalizing nor overplaying Newton's interest in mysticism, this superb biography shatters the conventional portrait of the man of pure intellect, giving us instead an obsessive mystic, a supreme egoist who saw himself as a Christ-like interpreter of divine knowledge." --Publishers WeeklyMichael White, the bestselling author of Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, was a science lecturer at Oxford, and science editor for GQ. Now a writer and journalist, he lives in London.
"An impressive biography....White effectively sets the details of Newton's career against the larger canvas of the history of ideas, and this may be the first clear exposition of the full complexity of this brilliant and enigmatic figure." --Kirkus Reviews
New Scientist review by Simon Singh