Scott Mandelbrote

A Man and His Myth

Newton

By

Chatto & Windus 153pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

The life of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) is hardly unknown. Reclusive though Newton may have been in the prime of his invention, long before the end of his life he had become a moving tourist attraction. French abbés, German academic tyros and Italian astronomers considered a visit to Newton to be worth the detour, whether they were seeking interpretations of ancient history, demonstrations of alchemical furnaces, or guidance on mathematical analysis. As President of the Royal Society from 1703, Newton took control of a body at least part of whose purpose was international communication and used it shamelessly to promulgate his own version of his past. Thanks to his careful supervision of both evidence and the forms of inquiry, the committee of the Royal Society that was charged with determining who had been the first mathematician to discover the calculus came down firmly on Newton’s side. From then on, the myth of Newton’s youthful genius began to acquire more and more lustre. It was burnished enthusiastically by a succession of star-struck admirers, whose accounts of their hero were drawn together by a calculating nephew-in-law, with an eye to supplementing his considerable inheritance through a biography of, and posthumous publications of writings by, the great man. Poetry, paintings, portrait medals and a memorial in Westminster Abbey followed the scientist’s death in what the art historian Francis Haskell referred to as ‘the apotheosis of Newton’. Yet always there was a darker undertow.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • The entertaining Howard Jacobson is in conversation with Prof John Mullan at the Queen’s Park Book Festival on Sund… ,
    • 'A modest and retiring man, Thompson spent his life describing apple varieties and recommending the best – Ribston… ,
    • 'Macfarlane is a poet with the instincts of a thriller writer, an autodidact in botany, mycology, geology and palae… ,
    • 'Some scholars attribute Shakespeare’s pre-eminence to four centuries of propaganda and not to the fact that Hamlet… ,
    • RT : We would appreciate any retweets ,
    • We've just stumbled on a gem from the LR archive. The emoluments page from May 1995, in which one reviewer asked to… ,
    • Unlike Mary Shelley's monstrous creation, Jeanette Winterson's Frankenstein-inspired novel feels 'barely alive', sa… ,