Newton's Gift by David Berlinski

Newton’s Gift [Reading Journal 2022]

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I have recently started teaching 6th grade math and science. I teach at a school with a classical education model where there is a different time period of history every school year to which the lessons for the year are often related. This year is the Early Modern period. Given that Newton is from that period and given the subject I’ll be teaching, I thought it would be relevant to pick up Newton’s Gift by David Berlinski from my bookshelf. It is a short biographical work on Isaac Newton focusing on his intellectual contributions and pursuits.

I took a break from work to go for a walk and finish the book yesterday. (I made sure to look out for apples falling out of trees!) When reading in the evenings I would listen to the famous Baroque composter Henry Purcell who lived in England during the 17th Century, the same century and country as Newton.

There are two things I learned about Newton that stand out the most. The first is the fact that his insights into math and physics, possibly the greatest any single person has contributed, seemed to have happened to him rather than being gained by disciplined effort. He “had the knack” for thinking creatively about the world and did so in a few apparently manic and compulsive spurts. Out came the world’s most influential theories about the way the physical world works.

The second thing I won’t likely forget is how the arc of Newton’s life did not seem to have been a positive one. He was self-centered, prideful, suspicious, petty, and didn’t seem very happy. He largely cared only for the things he enjoyed and the prestige that he could gain by his accomplishments at those things. He was willing to hurt others’ reputation and livelihoods (not to mention his willingness to hurt others physically, in his hunt for money-counterfeiters while working for the English government, for example).

Theologically, he was what one writer called a Christian heretic. This seems to have fit the bill. Newton kept his religious beliefs largely to himself, but as has been discovered in his writings in the centuries since his death, his Christianity was like his contributions to physics: he was creative, suspicious of conspiracy (for example, that Christians have been wrong for all or most of history about “true Christianity”), and secretive. His main departure from traditional Christianity being that he did not believe Jesus was God (thus rejecting doctrine of the Trinity).

I didn’t document this reading with a moral of the story in mind. But if I had to declare one it would be that Newton’s life appears to be evidence that in the story of mankind, our greatest achievements are not feats of virtuous self-will. If Newton’s achievements were all but guaranteed by the very fact of the type of person he was born as combined with his circumstances, the arc of our development as a species either has a very large dose of superfluous coincidence or transcendent design. I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to the latter view. The destiny of the human race lies squarely in God’s hands; how’s that for a moral?

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What do you know about Newton? Do you share my sentiments regarding the tenor of his life? What have you been reading lately?

Please comment below, I love hearing from you!

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