GIFTED EDUCATION NEWS-PAGE
Isaac Newton (2003) by James Gleick. New York: Pantheon Books.
This is the fantastic story of an English farm boy who grew up to become the founding genius of modern physics. His father died before he was born and his mother remarried when he was three years old. As a young child in the English countryside of Woolsthorpe, Newton (1642-1727) became interested in calculating the flow of water, making sundials and a water clock, and building windmills and watermills. There was little in his family background that would predict his later mathematical and analytic accomplishments. He was from a humble farming family and was encouraged to become a farmer. However, it was obvious to the family that he was not suited for farming.
It is not clear who his mentors were, although his mother's brother, rector William Ayscough, sponsored Newton's entrance into Cambridge University to study for the Anglican ministry. Even at Cambridge there appear to have been few professors who were his mentors. He entered this university as a humble "subsizar," - one who performed menial tasks for upper class students. Although his mother was financially able to support him, she provided him with very little money for expenses. Newton struggled to survive by waiting on wealthier students. He became the protégée of a professor of mathematics, Isaac Barrow, who helped him develop his mathematical skills.
The classical curriculum that Newton studied at Cambridge was not conducive to creative thinking. It primarily involved the study of Latin and Greek languages, the Bible, geometry, classical thinkers such as Aristotle, and 17th century scholars such as Descartes. Scientific studies as we know them did not exist. Copernicus' heliocentric theory was considered to be an hypothesis rather than a fact. Alchemy dominated the study of chemical reactions. There were no mathematical formulas for predicting the motion of planetary objects. In this medieval atmosphere, Newton concentrated on broad questions related to the nature of matter, motion, light, time and space. He was particularly interested in the motion of planets, the causes of tides, and using mathematics to describe and predict natural phenomena.
"In Newton's second year, having filled the beginning and end of his notebook with Aristotle, he started a new section deep inside: Questiones quaedam philosophicae - some philosophical questions. He set authority aside. Later he came back to this page and inscribed an epigraph borrowed from Aristotle's justification for dissenting from his teacher. Aristotle had said, 'Plato is my friend, but truth my greater friend.' Newton inserted Aristotle's name in sequence: Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas. He made a new beginning. He set down his knowledge of the world, organized under elemental headings, expressed as questions, based sometimes on his reading, sometimes on speculation. It showed how little was known, altogether. The choice of topics - forty-five in all - suggested a foundation for a new natural philosophy." (Gleick, p. 26)
After graduating from Cambridge he became a faculty member. While working on mathematical solutions related to his topics, he was appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at 27 years of age. The current Lucasian professor is the brilliant cosmologist, Stephen Hawking.
Although he was highly respected by his colleagues at Cambridge and by members of the Royal Society (a group of "natural philosophers" that encouraged scientific research and discussion), he remained a withdrawn and eccentric individual who feared that his work in mathematics and physics would be stolen by researchers from England and other European countries. Members of the Royal Society including Edmond Halley and Sir Robert Hooke encouraged Newton to publish and discuss his work, which he reluctantly and regretfully did after engaging in heated arguments regarding his mathematical analyses. Sir Robert Hooke, a prominent member of the Royal Society and a pioneering microscopist, was Newton's primary nemesis. Hooke was critical of Newton's research on light and optics (Theory of Color and Light). Newton withdrew his seminal research paper and refused to publish it for thirty years - a situation that prevented other scientists of this period from making progress in optics. Hooke and Newton also battled over the concept of gravity and the use of the inverse square law to describe planetary motion. It is clear that Hooke had similar ideas but he lacked the mathematical ability to express them in the brilliant manner developed by Newton. Hooke's accusations of intellectual theft infuriated Newton and led to many rancorous communications between him and members of the English scientific community. He did not steal Hooke's or anyone else's ideas.
His advanced thinking led to the invention of the calculus for determining the motion of objects. But he kept this mathematical method a secret for decades because he feared someone would steal this work. His fear was realized when the German mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz, claimed in 1711 that he invented the calculus. The Royal Society jumped to Newton's defense by publishing a paper supporting his precedence.
Newton's greatest achievement was to organize his mathematical work and the study of planetary motion into the book, Principia Mathematica (1687). The Royal Society agreed to publish this seminal work but the printing costs were assumed by one of its members, Edmond Halley, who was also responsible for goading Newton to complete this book, and in negotiating the intellectual wars raging between Newton and Hooke. The Principia created a scientific revolution in Europe by demonstrating how mathematics can be used to determine the motion of planets and other moving objects. Newton's laws of motion had worldwide applications to both science and technology. He brought the study of natural phenomena to an empirical-mathematical level, and provided the intellectual tools for modern physics and astronomy. His work formed the basis for modern technology and space exploration, including the current robotic mission to Mars. Newton said he accomplished all of this work by "standing on the shoulders of giants." But in actual fact no one approached his stature as a giant of science and mathematics.
Clearly, the origins of genius are difficult to determine and remain an unsolved riddle. Shakespeare, Einstein and Newton were all unique in their contributions to art and science. Although educators seek answers to the causes of their extraordinary abilities, one of the most serious problems is the lack of sufficient information about their early development. Little is known about Shakespeare's early life except that he grew up in Stratford-on-Avon and attended a grammar school there. Newton's early and teenage years are sketchy. While Einstein's early life suggests he was a mediocre student who had a learning disability - insufficient clues to help explain his later accomplishments. Although Gleick's book on Isaac Newton does not provide much information about his early life, it clearly explains his later accomplishments. The student who is gifted in science will find this book to be an excellent resource for examining Newton's ideas and contributions to science. Other outstanding books by James Gleick on science and scientists are: Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992) and Chaos: Making A New Science (1987).
"No one understands the mental faculty we call mathematical intuition; much less, genius. People's brains do not differ much, from one to the next, but numerical facility seems rarer, more special, than other talents. It has a threshold quality. In no other intellectual realm does the genius find so much common ground with the idiot savant. A mind turning inward from the world can see numbers as lustrous creatures; can find order in them, and magic; can know numbers as if personally. A mathematician, too, is a polyglot. A powerful source of creativity is a facility in translating, seeing how the same thing can be said in seemingly different ways. If one formulation doesn't work, try another.
"Newton's patience was limitless. Truth, he said much later, was 'the offspring of silence and meditation.'
"And he said: 'I keep the subject constantly before me and wait 'till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light' " (Gleick, p. 38) jjjj
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965): His Life and Giftedness
by Michael E. Walters
Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools
One of the themes in the field of gifted education is concerned with being sensitive to the self-esteem of gifted students. The life of W. Somerset Maugham is a reflection and critique of this approach to the study of the gifted individual. A recent biography by Jeffery Meyers (Somerset Maugham: A Life, Knopf, 2004) gives us insight into the role that sensibility has for the these individuals. His career started as a doctor who worked in the London slums. One of his first books, Lisa of Lambeth (1897), was based on his medical experiences and describes the tragedy of an inner city female in London. After he stopped practicing medicine he became a popular playwright. At one time he had four successful plays simultaneously on the London stage. Just prior to World War I he wrote a novel about a doctor's obsession with a waitress, Of Human Bondage (1915). During the war he was a special agent in Russia where he attempted to keep this nation fighting against Germany after the collapse of the Czarist regime. As a result of this experience he wrote one of the original espionage novels, Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928). He wrote two novels that fascinated his readers: The Moon and Sixpence (1919) was based upon the life of the French painter, Gauguin. The character in the book, Charles Strickland, leaves his family in Paris and spends his last years in Tahiti painting world famous art inspired by the people on the South Sea Islands. The other book was The Razor's Edge (1944) - a novel about an individual who spends most of his life seeking personal meaning. The book's locales include Chicago, the front during World War I and India. Maugham also produced some of the most famous short stories in the English language, e.g., Rain (1921) which is about an encounter between an American missionary and a woman of pleasure in the South Sea Islands. He was also an excellent nonfiction writer of travel books, personal journals and literary criticism.
Maugham's life shows that one of the most compelling traits of gifted individuals is the ability to create great art from their own personal wounds. His personal wounds involved his sense of being an outcast. He was born in Paris and lived there for most of his childhood. After his parents' death when he was a child, he was sent to England to live with an aunt and uncle who did not understand his literary and artistic interests. In addition, he had a lifetime speech impediment. But his basic psychological problem was his sexuality; although a bisexual his preference was for his own sex. Even after his worldwide fame he felt uncomfortable in England, and lived for decades in a villa on the French Riviera. Maugham proves that for gifted individuals, self-esteem is primarily based upon their accomplishments.
Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, April-May 2004