Trig Newtown, or How Heavy-Duty Math and Science Don’t Mix Well with Audio Books

Indy and MarionTHE AUDIO VERSION of James Gleick’s Isaac Newton is a mere five CDs — about two-and-a-half round trips to work. Newton was a genius, of course, a pioneer in mathematics and physics, yet I knew little of his life beyond the almost certainly apocryphal tale of the apple conking him on the head, leading to his theorizing about gravity. So I figured Gleick’s book was worth a listen.


The first disc took me easily through the early part of Newton’s biography. Gleick writes with a nifty style — clear prose laced with the kind of subtle lyricism that I really appreciate. Disc 2, though … whew. With little warning, scientific concepts and mathematical formulas whizzed from my car’s speakers. Talk of tangents, parabolas, circles, and arcs swirled about me, kinetic phantoms more menacing the destructive apparitions that hurled themselves from the Ark of the Covenant and annihilated the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Like Indy and Marion, I shut my eyes. I didn’t look.

Or, rather, my ears. I didn’t listen.

I’d listened to and enjoy science books before, but none of them was as dense as Newton became. The narrator may as well have been speaking Klingon. I hit the eject button, accepted the CD as it slid out of the player, and put it back into its case.

Print books allow the reader to read difficult passages slowly, and to go back and reread if necessary. She can take the time to digest what’s on the page. As great as I’ve found audio books to be, I’ve found that I need to work to keep up; there’s just no easy way to go back.

How ’bout them apples? (Sorry — couldn’t resist.) | DL

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