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Isaac Newton

Learn the truth behind the legend

By James Gleick
  • Read in 13 minutes
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  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Isaac Newton (2003) takes readers on an insightful tour of the life and mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers. It’s more than a plain account of Newton’s life and accomplishments. Instead, we get a revealing glimpse of his habits, obsessions and eccentricities. It all makes for a revealing and rewarding biography.

Key idea 1 of 8

Isaac Newton was born into chaos, and his curiosity was apparent from the first.

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642, in a modest English farmstead in Woolsthorpe, in the county of Lincolnshire. Newton's father, a man who’d never learned to read or write, died before he was born.

England in the 1640s was in a state of chaos. The English Civil War was in full swing, with the Royalists, who supported the king, on the one side and the Parliamentarians, who challenged the king’s despotic tendencies and his belief in the divine right of monarchs, on the other.

The world was still riddled with belief in alchemy, magic, the occult and mysticism. When people spoke of “gravity,” they were likely referring to a person’s bearing, not a force of nature. In short, it was a world ignorant of the most basic laws of science – information that we now take for granted.

Few imagined that a child born to this world would go on to alter it inexorably through mathematics and empirical observation.

But Newton would do just that, and he managed it in large part because of his curious mind, which was apparent from his earliest years.

As a child, Newton was especially interested in the movements of the sun. By using a string, he measured how the sun traverses across the sky and even sketched three-dimensional sundials and other geometric figures. He noted too that the moon’s movements were similar to those of the sun.

He went to school in nearby Grantham. At the King’s School, he grappled with the basics of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and theology. In arithmetic class, he learned how to measure areas and shapes, and methods for surveying land. Soon enough, he put this knowledge to use by creating lanterns, watermills and windmills at home.

But then, like all teenagers, Newton was struck with a little angst. He was plagued by deep existential despair: he was unsure what he should make of his life. His family and community thought that he would stay in the country, doing little more than tending sheep on his family’s farm. But Newton knew his calling was elsewhere.

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