While most books on Isaac Newton choose to focus on his scientific career and legacy, Life after Gravity starts at the point where Newton has already left Cambridge. Grey-haired at 54, he arrives in London in 1696 as the new Warden of the Mint, a place he would work at in various roles for the final three decades of his life.
London was an ideal location for an ambitious man determined to move up in the world, and with his investments in the East India Company and his salary, which grew to the equivalent of millions in today’s money, Newton could afford to live well. ‘Contradicting the myths of being an absent-minded, down-at-heel academic, this metropolitan Newton was clearly a big spender,’ writes Cambridge historian Patricia Fara.
After a few years in London, Newton would also become president of the Royal Society, at a time when it was primarily a club for ‘wealthy gentlemen with intellectual pretensions’. He would grow its influence, while also installing allies in key roles and ousting rivals.
Newton is now one of Britain’s greatest heroes, yet aspects of his personal life were anything but heroic. A public figure, Newton curried political favour with royalty and powerful benefactors while also engaging in bitter disputes with other leading scientists. These often-protracted conflicts reveal a less flattering side of the man, with Fara describing him as ‘a serial slanderer’.
Fara uses her book to profile some of those who lived in Newton’s orbit, such as his niece, Catherine Barton, who was both beautiful and intelligent, and likely had an affair with Newton’s wealthy patron Charles Montagu. Another important figure is John Theophilus Desaguliers, Newton’s assistant and an influential freemason who was crucial in establishing Newton’s international reputation.
Fara also uses Newton as a vehicle to paint a picture of London in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a time when the city was still undergoing its massive transformation following the devastating fire of 1666. Some of the most vivid scenes are of the Tower of London, where the Mint was located, ‘its assaying chambers and coin workshops crammed into narrow windswept spaces between the Tower’s inner and outer fortifications’.