Monday, July 9, 2018

Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton, Reveal’d by Mary Losure

This unusual biography of Newton completely captivated me once I started it; but I think it will need a lot of booktalking to get kids to pick it up initially.

The narrative of Newton, focused primarily on his youth, begins with the discovery of a small notebook belonging to a young Isaac Newton, wherein he wrote of the secrets of alchemy and the philosopher’s stone. Newton was separated from his mother at a young age, left behind at the family farmhouse while his mother went to live with her new family. Isaac attended the village school and rarely saw his mother again until his stepfather died and the family moved back to the farmhouse, when he was ten. But Isaac was soon sent away again, this time to live with an apothecary and study at another school. Losure considers how Newton may have felt, but never goes beyond speculation to fiction; during this time she focuses on the books he would have had access to, his writings, and contemporary events and philosophy.

Newton moved on to the University of Cambridge, continuing to be solitary, hoarding his secret discoveries to himself. But then came the plague and he returned to the farmhouse of his childhood. Isolated and alone, even in the midst of family and servants, Newton made a great discovery; a mathematical work he called fluxions. When Newton returned to the university he continued to study mathematics, revealing his knowledge to no one; but he also delved ever deeper into alchemy. Although eventually the university discovered his mathematical genius and he did, reluctantly, share some of his discoveries, Newton continued his search for truth on his own. He created his own telescopes and instruments, retreated from the Royal Society after Robert Hooke dismissed his experiments with light and color in prisms, and despite great acclaim after his astronomical discoveries and laws governing motion were made public, continued to pursue his own path.

Losure’s back matter consists of some further explanations of Newtonian laws, chemistry, and alchemy, copious source notes, photographs of some of his original documents and writings from his youth, bibliography, and index.

The genius of Losure’s book lies in the smooth blending of science and story, making Newton seem like a real, albeit strange and remote, person. Readers will sympathize with his difficult family situation and imagine their own reactions and feelings in his place. Losure simplifies the mathematics and science so readers will find themselves understanding the basics of Newton’s experiments without stopping to struggle with the complicated mathematical equations, although mathematically-inclined readers may also pursue those in more detail.

Verdict: Beautifully written and presented, this book brings the life and world of Newton to contemporary readers, showing not only the importance of his discoveries but also the change from medieval to modern world that he played such a large part in. The problem will be trying to find readers for it. While the writing is clear and comprehensible, something even elementary-aged children will be able to learn from, it’s not, at first glance, a riveting topic. I wouldn’t hand this one to reluctant readers or those who are unwilling to explore new topics. It will need a reader who is passionately interested in history or science and one who is willing to give a book at least a chapter before losing interest. Although it may not have a wide audience, it’s a great book that deserves recognition and to be promoted to readers, something that will expand their worldview and understanding and may spark a lifelong interest in learning.

ISBN: 9780763670634; Published 2017 by Candlewick; Borrowed from another library in my consortium

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