Friday, February 10, 2017

Isaac the Alchemist by Mary Losure, 2017

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A surprising true story of Isaac Newton's boyhood suggests an intellectual development owing as much to magic as science. 

Before Isaac Newton became the father of physics, an accomplished mathematician, or a leader of the scientific revolution, he was a boy living in an apothecary's house, observing and experimenting, recording his observations of the world in a tiny notebook. As a young genius living in a time before science as we know it existed, Isaac studied the few books he could get his hands on, built handmade machines, and experimented with alchemy--a process of chemical reactions that seemed, at the time, to be magical. Mary Losure's riveting narrative nonfiction account of Isaac's early life traces his development as a thinker from his childhood, in friendly prose that will capture the attention of today's budding scientists--as if by magic. Back matter includes an afterword, an author's note, source notes, a bibliography, and an index.
(176 pages)

Wow. I thought I knew a good amount about Isaac Newton (father of modern physics, first person to discover gravity, the whole "apple fell out of a tree" story, etc.). It turns out I knew very, very little, though–and most of what I thought I knew was actually completely wrong. The story about the apple falling out of a tree and inspiring Newton's conception of gravity, for example, simply didn't happen. Also, it turns out that he was absolutely obsessed with alchemy. He spent most of his life, from the sounds of it, inside a cramped furnace-room trying desperately to figure out how to transmute metals! It's fascinating to read about his determination and very active imagination in this arena, but still sad to see how much of his life he wasted chasing after something that he never could have achieved. Also, who knows what else he could have discovered if he'd been focusing on more fruitful pursuits?

Ah, well, I suppose being the father of modern science, the inventor of calculus, and the discoverer of gravity is more than enough for one human being. As someone who's taking AP Physics with Calculus right now, though, I'm not sure I'm entirely happy about the role Newton had in providing for this experience. I can be blown away by his genius and impact on science while still hating physics, right? Totally.

Anyway, I really liked the format of the book. It's pretty short, and the pages are filled with not just text describing his story but also pictures of Newton's actual books and journals. It's fascinating to see his ancient scrawled notes about things like perpetual motion and philosophers' stones! The information is presented in a way that's pretty accessible to kids, focusing heavily on Newton's formative childhood years and then skipping through his adult life to main describe his pursuit of alchemy and then his greatest scientific achievements. I never thought the writing was simplistic, even if it was geared toward kids, and the extra quotes and information in the back of the book really helped enhance my understanding of Newton's world.

Also, this book totally makes me sad that I didn't know Isaac Newton spent most of his life at Cambridge two months ago. If I'd known while I was there for my interview, I totally would have tried to nose around his home base in Trinity College!

Anyway, bottom line, this is a really engaging and fascinating book about Isaac Newton. Is it the most thorough book about him on the market? I very much doubt it. But it's a great book for kids who aren't ready for the bigger biographies, and it's perfect for older people like me who aren't really feeling up for the bigger biographies either. I learned everything I ever could have wanted to about Newton from Isaac the Alchemist, so I for one really love it. If you're looking to dip your toes into learning about the amazing scientist, mathematician and alchemist that was Newton, then this is definitely the book for you!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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