cover image NEWTON: The Making of Genius

NEWTON: The Making of Genius

Patricia Fara, . . Columbia Univ., $29.95 (347pp) ISBN 978-0-231-12806-3

This scholarly but accessible social history examines the reasons behind Isaac Newton's canonization as scientific genius, the modern-day equivalent, the author asserts, of secular sainthood. Today, schoolchildren know Newton as the pioneering empiricist who discovered the fundamental laws of nature by observing an apple fall from a tree, yet he was not a scientist. His goal was to understand God, and it was his obsession with alchemy, prophecy and ancient chronology from which his celebrated studies in gravity and optics emerged. In his lifetime, Newton's reputation had little reach outside a small circle of Cambridge scholars. By some, he was thought to be mentally unstable, even insane. By the 18th century, however, he was a national icon in England, and across the channel in revolutionary France his name had become synonymous with rational progress and egalitarian political ideals. Revelations about Newton's Faustian quest to unmask God are not uncommon biographical notes today, yet as Fara states, even Richard S. Westfall, whose biography Never at Rest is still the definitive one, perpetuates the secular myth by downplaying Newton's mysticism to focus anachronistically on his "scientific career." Fara contributes to Newton's biography by focusing on the roots of Newton's apotheosis. She examines how idealized portraits propagated Newton's public image, and how the marketing of Newtonian images outside academic circles commercialized science in the same way Einstein's face sells today. Throughout, Fara, a lecturer at Cambridge University, effectively employs the words and imagery of religious discourse to characterize the idealization and commercialization of Newton in the service of emerging secular politics and culture. (Nov.)