Cover image for Isaac Newton, the asshole who reinvented the universe / Florian Freistetter ; translated by Brian Taylor.
Isaac Newton, the asshole who reinvented the universe / Florian Freistetter ; translated by Brian Taylor.
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224 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm
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530.092 NEW FRE Book Adult General Collection

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A blunt and humorous profile of Isaac Newton focusing on his disagreeable personality and showing that his offputting qualities were key to his scientific breakthroughs.

Isaac Newton may have been the most important scientist in history, but he was a very difficult man. Put more bluntly, he was an asshole, an SOB, or whatever epithet best describes an abrasive egomaniac. In this colorful profile of the great man--warts and all--astronomer Florian Freistetter shows why this damning assessment is inescapable.

Newton's hatred of fellow scientist Robert Hooke knew no bounds and he was strident in expressing it. He stole the work of colleague John Flamsteed, ruining his career without a second thought. He carried on a venomous battle with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the invention of calculus, vilifying him anonymously while the German scientist was alive and continuing the attacks after he died. All evidence indicates that Newton was conniving, sneaky, resentful, secretive, and antisocial. Compounding the mystery of his strange character is that he was also a religious fanatic, a mystery-monger who spent years studying the Bible and predicted the apocalypse.

While documenting all of these unusual traits, the author makes a convincing case that Newton would have never revolutionized physics if he hadn't been just such an obnoxious person. This is a fascinating character study of an astounding genius and--if truth be told--an almighty asshole as well.

Author Notes

Florian Freistetter is an award-winning freelance science journalist and the author of six popular-science books on astronomy. He has also published more than five thousand articles on his blog, "Astrodicticum Simplex," one of the most-read German-language science blogs, and he writes a weekly column about mathematics for, as well as many other articles for various publications. Since 2015, he has produced and performed in humorous popular-science presentations in theaters in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland and also on television ("Science Busters") and he publishes a weekly podcast on astronomy. He has previously taught astronomy at the University of Heidelberg, Jena, and Vienna.



Introduction   Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day in the year 1642. Or on January 4 in the year 1643. It depends entirely on which calendar you consult--and the fact that there were two different calendars in use back then is evidence enough of the confused times in which the man who would later reinvent the universe was born. It was high time for a genius to appear and shed light on the world, and Isaac Newton was that very genius. And an asshole to boot.   People generally think of Newton as the man who almost singlehandedly founded the modern physical sciences, as the scientist whose work forms the basis of practically all branches of the natural sciences, as the person who gave us a completely new perspective of the universe. All of that is absolutely true. And yet Isaac Newton was also a selfish and belligerent bully. I don't say that because I have anything against the man. On the contrary--my own work as an astronomer is dominated by Newton's achievements. Without Newton, none of the things I have found out in the course of my astronomic research would have been possible. I worship Newton more than almost any other scientist of the past--even though he was such a jerk.   In fact, to a small degree, I admire him precisely because he was so horrible. Does that sound strange to you? A contradiction in terms? It's to do with the fact that, in the modern world of science, the most important thing is to stick to the social and political rules of the research apparatchiks and to behave in an opportune fashion. Otherwise, you'll never have a successful career. So there simply couldn't be somebody like Newton today--a person who seems to delight in making enemies his whole life long and yet still manages to revolutionize the world of science. Or perhaps there could. Can a genius and asshole be a role model for a successful scientist even today?   Isaac Newton was the guy with the apple and gravity, as most people probably know. But his achievements went much further than that. There was practically no subject that he left untouched, so it's worth taking a closer look at his work. But the same is true of his fascinating character: he was odd, unfriendly, uncompromising, extremely sure of himself, resentful, argumentative, secretive, insensitive, underhanded, and a religious fanatic who liked to prophesy the end of the world. But--and this is the most interesting point--if he hadn't been all of that, he most likely wouldn't have been in a position to change the world in the way he did.   Newton is a man from another time. His scientific achievements, however, have survived up until the present day and will continue to be valid in the future. The natural world can still be explained using the laws that he established back then. In this book, which makes no claim to be a comprehensive biography--if we wanted to understand Newton's life and work as fully as is possible some three hundred years after his death, we would have to write entire libraries of books, which experts in the past have indeed done (see, for example, the recommended reading at the end of this book)--I take a look at the way in which Newton treated himself and his fellow human beings, complete with all the disputes, absurd decisions, and bizarre episodes, which find no mention in the usual physics text books.   Newton was a strange and awkward chap from the very beginning. "What shall become of me? I will make an end of it. I can only weep. I do not know what to do." He wrote these depressing lines in his notebook while still a youth. After a not particularly happy childhood, he saw no prospect of a happier life as an adult. His father had died before his birth, and his mother remarried when Isaac was three years old. The child seemed to be viewed as a nuisance for the young couple and was sent off to live with his grandmother. At school, he was cleverer by some distance than his classmates, which only served to heighten his sense of isolation.   A list of all Newton's "sins," as written later, at the age of nineteen, in his notebook, gives an indication of his relationship with his family and other people in general. When he writes that he was guilty of "peevishness with my mother," that's understandable. Entries like "Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer" or "Calling Dorothy Rose a jade" also sound like things that youngsters are prone to do, just as pretty much every boy has at some point had "unclean thoughts words and actions and dreams." "Making pies on Sunday night" or "Making a mousetrap on Sunday" are no longer considered misdeeds today, though they obviously lay heavy on Newton's heart. But some entries provide a deeper insight into his character: "Wishing death and hoping it to some" or "Striking many." And by the time we read "Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them," it is clear that Isaac Newton's head was full of thoughts that have no place in a normal childhood and youth.   It follows that Newton preferred to focus on the physical world around him than on other people. He was fascinated by machines, constructed water mills, and observed how, when light passed through tiny holes in the wall of his attic bedroom, the sun's course could be measured with the rays of light. He then made sundials that were so accurate that the family he lived with during his school days used them to tell the time. When Isaac was sixteen, his mother--now a widow once more--summoned him back home to take over the family's farming activities, which ran completely contrary to his interests.   Farming was not one of Newton's fortes. He might have been better at it if he had had any interest at all in the work. But even then, he was above all a difficult, selfish, and childish young man--one who had no desire for tough physical activity. Fortunately for him and for science, however, his uncle and his former teacher were able to convince Isaac's mother to allow him to attend the University of Cambridge.   In June 1661, Newton left his home village of Woolsthorpe in the county of Lincolnshire and set off for the university. There, he began the work that would shake the foundations of the world as it was then and whose effects can still be felt today. There, he also began the next stage of the development of his character, such that we can say in hindsight, "What a scientific genius! And what an asshole!" Excerpted from Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe by Florian Freistetter All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.