The Making of Genius

Patricia Fara

Columbia University Press


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Pub Date: May 2004

ISBN: 9780231128070

384 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $32.00

Pub Date: December 2002

ISBN: 9780231128063

384 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $95.00


The Making of Genius

Patricia Fara

Columbia University Press

Isaac Newton has become an intellectual avatar for our modern age, the man who, as even children know, was inspired to codify nature's laws by watching an apple fall from a tree. Yet Newton devoted much of his energy to deciphering the mysteries of alchemy, theology, and ancient chronology. How did a man who was at first obscure to all but a few esoteric natural philosophers and Cambridge scholars, was preoccupied with investigations of millennial prophecies, and spent decades as Master of the London Mint become famous as the world's first great scientist? Patricia Fara demonstrates that Newton's reputation, surprisingly limited in his day, was carefully cultivated by devoted followers so that Newton's prestige became inseparable from the explosive growth of science itself.

Newton: The Making of Genius is not a conventional biography of the man but a cultural history of the interrelated origins of modern science, the concept of genius, and the phenomenon of fame. Beginning with the eighteenth century, when the word "scientist" had not even been coined, Fara reveals how the rise of Isaac Newton's status was inextricably linked to the development of science. His very surname has acquired brand-name-like associations with science, genius, and Britishness—Apple Computers used it for an ill-fated companion to the Mac, and Margaret Thatcher has his image in her coat of arms.

Fara argues that Newton's escalating fame was intertwined with larger cultural changes: promoting him posthumously as a scientific genius was strategically useful for ambitious men who wanted to advertise the power of science. Because his reputation has been repeatedly reinterpreted, Newton has become an iconic figure who exists in several forms. His image has been so malleable, in fact, that we do not even reliably know what he looked like.

Newton's apotheosis was made possible by the consumer revolution that swept through the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. His image adorned the walls, china, and ornamental coinage of socially aspiring British consumers seeking to identify themselves with this very smart man. Traditional impulses to saint worship were transformed into altogether new phenomena: commercialized fame and scientific genius, a secularized version of sanctity. Handsomely illustrated and engagingly written, this is an eye-opening history of the way Newton became a cultural icon whose ideas spread throughout the world and pervaded every aspect of life.

Fara's unconventional biography explores this notion of fame-cum-sainthood, Newton's life, and the development of cultural identity spawned by a consumer revolution.

Science News

Fascinating.... Nothing seems beyond Fara's grasp in her scholarly examination of apples and alchemy, physics and fame, public relations and reputation.

Kirkus Reviews

An audacious and engaging examination of science, celebrity and the nature of genius.... The journey Fara takes us on is no less than the journey of science's progress in public esteem since the end of the 17th century and, as such, it is immensely valuable... beautifully done.

National Post

She simply and clearly describes the trajectory of Newton's image, both metaphorical and literal, in the form of portraits and coins....One would like to say that if Newton had not existed he would have to be invented, but what Fara shows us is that he has been invented.

New Scientist

The story of how a reclusive scholar who wrote mainly about alchemy and theology was transformed into history's greatest scientist, a popular hero, and an icon for our modern age.

Library Journal

This scholarly but accessible social history examines the reasons behind Isaac Newton's canonization as scientific genuis, the modern-day equivalent, the author asserts, of secular sainthood.

Publisher's Weekly

One of those books—Paul Johnson's Birth of the Modern is another—that sets you to thinking about the deep currents of thought that prevail in any given age.... An excellent survey, from all angles, of Newton's reputation.

The New Criterion

This is...the most efficient historical biographical scetch I have ever read.

John Fraser, National Post

Fara offers a fascinating chronicle of the fate of the reputation of Newton from his own times to recent revisions... This volume is a pleasure to read.


The interested reader will discover that Newton has become an intellectual icon for our modern age not only by means of his extraordinary mathematical discoveries. Many other aspects of his life have been exploited to create the image of him. They are examined in this very interesting book.

Massimo Galuzzi, Mathematical Reviews

Isaac Newton may be a household name, but few people understand the foundation of this fame. In Newton: The Making of Genius, Patricia Fara has done the impossible—she has chronicled Newton's brilliance in a way that is simultaneously informative, comprehensive, and fun to read.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director, Hayden Planetarium, New York City

A good read, purposeful, well structured, and well researched... Quite eye-opening.

Roy Porter, author ofThe Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity
List of Illustrations

About the Author

Patricia Fara lectures in the history and philosophy of science department at Cambridge University and is a fellow of Clare College. She lives in Cambridge, England.