In debates about “who was the greatest scientist who ever lived,” the outcome does not always favor Albert Einstein; rather, opinion is generally split between him and Isaac Newton.
Newton was born in England on Christmas Day in 1642, the same year that Galileo Galilei died in Italy. This book tells us about Newton’s childhood and years of study, but most of the focus is on his later intellectual achievements. His seminal book, The Principia Mathematica, outlined his theories of calculus, the three laws of motion, and universal gravitation. He also revolutionized the design of the telescope and the study of optics. He took over Britain’s Royal Mint and stabilized its currency. He even served in Parliament for a time.
Behind the scenes, he devoted years to the secret study of alchemy, an art forbidden by the Church. The goal of alchemy was to figure out how to turn base metals into precious ones, as well as to find a magical product called “the philosopher’s stone” which would allegedly provide the key to eternal life.
As for what Newton was like as a man, he was known for being moody, jealous, and egotistical, and for having a fierce, unforgiving temper. He was probably paranoid and possibly gay.
But mostly, this book eschews the gossip about Newton’s personal life in favor of highlighting his eye-popping intellectual achievements. Newton not only asked himself questions, such as “why do things always fall down?” but he made it his life’s work to find answers to them.
Discussion: I love so many aspects of this series of books for kids from the Chicago Review Press. Most of all, they don’t shy away from giving a complete picture of the life of the person being profiled, warts and all. They demonstrate it is possible to applaud the accomplishments of acclaimed figures in history while at the same time admitting to more regrettable aspects of their lives. They understand that to eschew deification is not to question the achievements of a person, but rather suggests that even “mortals” may effect great changes in history.
The series also contains fascinating information about the contemporaries of the person being profiled.
A third great feature of this series is the inclusion of activities that not only relate to the subject, but tie together different aspects of learning, from language arts to science to architecture, etc.
Some of the 21 activities in this book include instructions for the following:
charting phases of the moon
making a pendulum
how to make a water clock and a candle clock and compare their accuracy
making a prism
demonstrating the principle of the inverse square law
how to grow a crystal garden
experiments that demonstrate each of Newton’s three laws of motion
baking an apple pie in the style of Newton’s time
The book also features a time line, glossary, annotated list of internet resources, bibliography, and index.
Evaluation: This series of books from the Chicago Review Press for kids (but also older readers) is outstanding. Each provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of the subject matter, adds fun and informative activities, and treats history as it should be treated: without misleading filters that glamorize and/or obfuscate the truth.
Published by Chicago Review Press, 2009