Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese, 192 pages, $21.95

Peter Ackroyd is an acclaimed and prolific British novelist, poet, dramatist, and biographer. He has written biographies about Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake, Thomas More, Oscar Wilde, Poe, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. His history of London was a recent bestseller. His new biography of Isaac Newton follows lives of Chaucer and J. M. W. Turner.

There has been a raft of recent biographies of Newton, notably Richard Westfall’s Never at Rest. Why another one? The answer is that a brief life of Newton meets a widespread need. Longer biographies may tell you more about a person than you care to know. Although there are no new or startling revelations in Ackroyd’s book, its facts are accurate, his judgments sound, and his writing a great pleasure to read.

Isaac Newton (1643–1727) was a strange, improbable blend of a great mathematician and physicist, one of history’s greatest, with the mindset of an ignorant, naïve fundamentalist. A practicing Anglican, he never doubted that God created the entire universe in six literal days, that He once drowned every human and beast except for Noah and his companions, that Eve was fabricated from Adam’s rib, that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, that Moses parted the Red Sea, and that the prophecies of Daniel and the Book of Revelation came straight from the Almighty and are certain to be fulfilled.

Newton tried to calculate the exact date of Jesus’s return to earth. He set a precise year for the creation that was half a century later than Bishop Ussher’s famous 2004 B.C.. He was convinced that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist of the Book of Revelation. After his death, Ackroyd tells us, Newton left a manuscript on biblical prophecy that ran to 850 pages.

Newton’s single great departure from Anglican orthodoxy was his opposition to the Trinity. Jesus was indeed the Son of God, but he was not Jehovah. “We should not pray to two Gods,” Newton wrote. The notion that Jesus was God in human flesh was a heresy perpetuated by Rome. Newton carefully concealed his anti-trinitarianism to avoid being expelled from Cambridge University where for decades he was a professor, ironically at Trinity College.

Another aspect of Newton’s curious, complicated life was his obsession with alchemy. He owned and studied all the books on alchemy he could obtain, and spent endless days in his laboratory trying vainly to turn base metals into gold. His unpublished writings on alchemy, though smaller than his writings on Bible prophecy, ran to more than a million words, far exceeding everything he wrote about physics and astronomy. Ackroyd cites John Maynard Keynes’s celebrated Cambridge lecture on Newton’s secret records about alchemy. He found nothing of the slightest value to science.

Late in life, Newton suffered a mental breakdown that lasted more than a year. It has been suggested it was the result of poisoning by the mercury used in his alchemical experiments. Others believe Newton was the victim of a bipolar disorder that triggered a deep depression.

It is hard now to comprehend, but only a small fraction of Newton’s long life was devoted to investigating God’s laws of nature. In a few years of his mid-twenties he invented calculus, found that white light was a mixture of all colors, explained for the first time the rainbow, and constructed one of the earliest reflecting telescopes. His greatest discovery, of course, was that gravity, which holds us to the earth and makes apples fall, is the same force that guides the path of our moon, our sister planets, and our comets. What else might he have discovered had he not squandered his energy and talents on alchemy and Biblical exegesis!

Gravity, Newton wrongly believed, acts instantaneously at a distance. Its nature remained a total mystery. Newton knew its force varied directly with the product of two masses, and inversely with the square of the distance between them, but its cause, he said, “I do not pretend to understand.” Not until Einstein was it partly explained by the curvature of space-time.

Light, Newton believed, was corpuscular, composed of minute particles. In this he was half right. Today, light is known to be both a particle and also a wave.

Ackroyd is good in describing Newton’s complex personality, almost as bizarre as his beliefs. In Ackroyd’s words he was “suspicious and secretive,” with “a great capacity for anger and aggression.” There are records of him smiling, only one of him laughing. It occurred when someone asked him what is the value of studying Euclid.

In his younger years, Newton often slept in his clothing. Even when not absorbed by work he would go without eating or eat standing up. He never exercised or had any hobbies. Going out, he frequently forgot to comb his hair or fasten his stockings. In his elderly years, when he was Warden of the Royal Mint, he was ruthless in seeing that counterfeiters were hanged.

Newton had almost no interest in art, music, literature, or women. Here is his account of his only attendance at an opera. “The first act I heard with pleasure, the second stretched my patience, at the third I ran away.” He once dismissed poetry as “ingenious fiddle-faddle.”

During his depression Newton wrote a curious letter to the philosopher John Locke:

Sir, being of opinion that you endeavored to embroil me with woemen [an odd if for him appropriate spelling] & by other means I was so much affected with it as that when one told me you were sickly & would not live I answered twere better if you were dead. I desire you to forgive me this uncharitableness.
Puzzled, Locke replied that of course he was forgiven, and they remained friends.

Newton was always proud of his discoveries and furious when others claimed to have made similar findings earlier. His most bitter quarrel was with the German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz over the discovery of calculus. Leibniz was unquestionably the first to publish, and his notation proved superior to Newton’s. Today’s opinion is that the two made their discovery of calculus independently, not knowing of the other’s work.

There has been speculation that Newton was gay. Ackroyd finds the evidence slim. It rests on nothing more than Newton’s lack of interest in women, and his friendship in later life with a much younger Swiss mathematician who idolized him. At one time, the two hoped to share lodgings, but nothing came of the plan.

If Newton were to return to earth today, he would of course be overwhelmed by developments in physics and astronomy. He would be less astounded, I suspect, by cars, trains, airplanes, even electric lights, but a desk calculator and a television screen would seem sheer sorcery. As for the occasional scientist who believes that physics is on the verge of discovering everything, he would surely have had only contempt.

There is a famous passage in which Newton suggests how little science knows, perhaps how little it can know. The passage is often quoted, but deserves repeating over and over again. Here is how Ackroyd gives it in his last chapter but one:

I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.