Saturday, March 20, 2010

Book Notes: Isaac Newton

Mitch Stokes new book on the life of Isaac Newton is part of a series by Thomas Nelson called Christian Encounters. Each volume is a short paperback introduction to the life of a famous Christian from history. Stokes’ book is about 160 pages of tightly written historical narrative, a great starting place to learn about the life and career of Isaac Newton.

Newton lived in the second half of the 17th century and the early parts of the 18th century. One of the greatest thinkers of modern history, Newton studied and wrote on such varied topics as mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, theology, optics, and inventions. Never married, Newton leveraged his amazing mental capacities to work on some of the most difficult problems in nature.

I had personally been introduced to Newton’s work during my education as an engineer. He was the inventor of calculus, which of course we still use today to describe natural phenomena like motion mathematically. He was also the inventor of modern physics, which we call today Newtonian physics (by which we distinguish his work from Einstein’s work in the early 20th All high school physics students learn Newton’s equations for understanding forces, motion, gravity, and acceleration. These are a product of his great work Principia, written late in his life in three volumes. My final encounter with Newton’s work was in college when I studied dynamics in my engineering training. Whereas Einstein’s work is necessary to work on very small scales, very large scales (planetary motion), or very fast scales (close to the speed of light), Newton’s equations are still extremely accurate in everyday engineering work. This explains why most engineering training today continues to use Newton’s calculus and mechanics formulas.

Because of my exposure to Newton’s work throughout my education, Stokes’ explanation of these discoveries was not new to me. However, I was most intrigued to learn in Stokes’ book about two features of Newton’s life: his theology rigor and his philosophical views about science. Newton was a committed Christian and saw his life’s work through the lens of honoring God as creator of an ordered natural world. He also was an amazing student of Scripture, giving his life to understanding God as revealer of all mysteries. Newton wrote more about God and theology than he did about any other topic. The second surprise to me was Newton’s focus on making sure that he distinguished between natural explanations of how the world worked and mystical reasons of why the world worked as it did. He focused his efforts in science to the first – showing how mathematics could explain the way the world operated, but he made sure to write in detail about his convictions that there were deeper mystical reasons for why the world works as it does. This view of science and the theological underpinnings of science seem to have been lost among the latest generation of well known scientists.

Overall, I would highly recommend Stokes’ book for those who are interested in learning about the amazing life of this man. He explains difficult issues in simple English and shares enough of the drama that surrounded Newton’s life to keep the non-academic interested throughout. I also appreciated Stokes’ fair assessment of Newton’s theology and religious convictions.



2 comments:

Renee said...

If you had to guess, what reading level do you think this book is? Would it be alright for mid elementary or would it be something better saved for middle school?

Keith Ferguson said...

Renee,

This book is at a middle-school reading level. The concepts would be a little hard to understand at a elementary level (especially his discussion of Newton's philosophy and mathematics).

Keith