November 19, 2018

Review: Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe

On sale now.

There. We said it.

So, you think you know Sir Isaac Newton? Some of the most fascinating tales of science and history lurk in the footnotes, down the tiny side avenues and rabbit holes that most traditional biographies only hint at. Rittenhouse passed out during a transit of Venus. Tycho had his nose shot off during a duel.

Of course, most science history books only tease us with these glimpses and asides in favor of the standard narrative of discovery. One recent book that breaks this trend is Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe by Florian Freistetter out from Prometheus Books.

Sure, you learned Newton’s laws of motion in high school science class. You’ve heard the apocryphal tale of the apple. But did you know that, as the head of the Royal Mint, Newton also actively persecuted counterfeiters? Or that he was not only a staunch critic of his contemporaries, but a firm defender of his own work?

The book portrays Newton at his idiosyncratic best, an abrasive character with a drive to understand the inner workings of nature and the universe at all costs. Newton was fascinated with the nature of gravity and light, and once famously stuck a needle in his eye (don’t try this at home) in order to better understand the nature of sight and light perception. Though these early experiments may seem frivolous at best and dangerous at worst, Newton did give us the first functioning design for a reflecting telescope that now bears his name, the Newtonian reflector.

The book also delves into the controversy over the invention of calculus and Newton versus Leibniz. A product of his time, Newton’s efforts in early chemistry were also tied up with its arcane roots in alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, a material said to have the ability to transmute any substance into gold. The ruling powers of the day so feared Newton’s reputation that the King of England actually issued an edict against any such transmutation, lest it collapse the national economy overnight.

Newton also dabbled in the occult, and analysis of the Bible in search of hidden meaning and the history of early humanity. Newton also used his studies in the chronology of the Bible to extrapolate the date for the apocalypse in 2060. This fascinating aside gives a glimpse into a time that may seem strange to us today, an era when science and magic were still intertwined. Kepler, for example still practiced astrology, and took an entire year off from his studies of planetary motion to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft.

And while these aspects of Newton’s life and works may seem strange, it also paints a picture of how science with true predictive power and the scientific method emerged. Sure, we all memorized Newton’s three laws of motion in high school, but he also set physics on the right track, a quest to unify the fundamental forces of nature that continues today.

Be sure to read Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe. You’ll never see Newton in the same light again.

 

Review: What Are Gamma-ray Bursts? by Joshua S. Bloom.

Out from Princeton Press!

In 1888, astronomer Simon Newcomb made the now infamous quip that “we are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy…” One has to wonder what these 19th century scientists would make of the wonderful cosmological menagerie of black holes, energetic galactic nuclei, and the topic of today’s review. [Read more...]

Review: Seeing Further Edited by Bill Bryson.

Few realize in this relatively enlightened age that our outlook on the world around us has been shaped by a pioneering few who often went against the grain. This week, we look at Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, & the Genius of the Royal Society. This collection of essays traces the 350 year history of the British Royal Society, first established in 1660. Over the years, the Society has hosted such luminaries as Isaac Newton, Joseph Banks, and Francis Crick, to name a very brief few.

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One of the crucial questions in modern cosmology is: why is there anything at all? Why are we here to admire the cosmos, and create books and blogs about how clever we are to figure it all out? Why didn’t the early universe promptly annihilate itself in a massive matter/anti-matter collision? [Read more...]

Review: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

Every once in a while, a book crosses our nightstand that just makes us say “Wow…” We then have to ration out this discovered gem, lest we burn the midnight oil and consume it in one lost weekend…

Such a discovery came to us in the form of recent book The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. Out by Pantheon Books, this huge opus does nothing short of charting the course of science through the early 1800’s. From Joseph Banks to William Herschel to Humphrey Davies, many a fascinating untold tale is contained in this book. I explicitly saved this book for reading during our Ecuador trek late last year, as adventure travel deserves good reading to go along with it. Each of these tales are an engaging read, and cover such diverse fields as astronomy, chemistry, anthropology, and botany. Of course, since this is an astronomically based blog, the chapters on William Herschel came first. [Read more...]