Imagine a world with no concept of gravity, a world that knows not what forces affect a moving body, a world that does not understand the science affecting light and a world without calculus. Imagine a world without one of its greatest minds, Sir Isaac Newton. Sir Isaac Newton is neither a mathematician nor a scientist, he is neither an astronomer nor a chemist, he is all of these compressed into one genius.
His works have greatly contributed to the advancement of the sciences and civilized society as a whole. Present day natural and chemical sciences including mathematics will not be the same without his ideas. To pay homage to a man this great, let us study his life and his legacies, let us delve into his mind, view his past, learn a little about his childhood and make sure that he is not forgotten in the annals of history.
Isaac Newton was born prematurely on Christmas day 1642 (4 January 1643, Gregorian calendar) in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire. He came from a family of farmers but never knew his father, also named Isaac Newton, who died in October 1642, three months before his son was born. When he was barely three years old Newton’s mother, Hanna Ayscough placed her first born with his grandmother Margery Ayscough at Woolsthorpe in order to remarry and raise a second family with Barnabas Smith, a wealthy minister from nearby North Witham (Hatch, 2002).
Basically treated as an orphan, Isaac did not have a happy childhood, he felt very bitter towards his mother and his step-father Barnabas Smith, proof of which he wrote as among his sins at age nineteen:-
Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.
Isaac began attending the Free Grammar School in Grantham but shown little promise in academic work.. His mother thought that her eldest son was the right person to manage her affairs and her estate so Isaac was taken away from school but fortunately showed that he had no talent or interest in managing an estate.
Isaac was allowed to return to the Free Grammar School in Grantham in 1660 to complete his school education and entered his uncle’s old College, Trinity College Cambridge, on 5 June 1661. Newton’s aim at Cambridge was a law degree but nevertheless Newton studied the philosophy of Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes, and in particular Boyle. The mechanics of the Copernican astronomy of Galileo attracted him and he also studied Kepler’s Optics. He recorded his thoughts in a book which he entitled Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae (Certain Philosophical Questions) (Robertson, 2000).
In 1665 Newton took his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge without honors or distinction. The university closed for the next two years because of plague so Newton returned to Woolsthorpe in midyear. There, in the following 18 months, he made a series of original contributions to science. He himself admitted that
All this was in the two plague years of 1665 and 1666, for in those days I was in my prime of age for invention, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since.
In mathematics Newton conceived his ‘method of fluxions’ (infinitesimal calculus), laid the foundations for his theory of light and color, and achieved significant insight into the problem of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his Principia (1687). There, in a period of less than two years, while Newton was still under 25 years old, he began revolutionary advances in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy (Hatch, 2002).
In April 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge and was elected a minor fellow at Trinity. In the next year he became a senior fellow upon taking his master of arts degree, and in 1669 he succeeded Isaac Barrow as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.
From this point until 1678, Newton published two papers which according to Robert Hooke were plagiarized and were taken from his research, this led to several arguments between the two but as history would have it, society favored the older more brittle Robert Hooke. In 1678, the blow of this controversy caused Newton to suffer a serious breakdown and the year immediately after, his mother died. These past events took its toll on Newton, he cut off himself from others and started to engross himself in alchemical research.
In 1687, with the support of his friend the astronomer Edmond Halley, Newton published his single greatest work, the ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ (‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’). This literature showed how a universal force, gravity, applied to all objects in all parts of the universe (Hatch, 2002).
In 1689, Newton was elected MP for Cambridge University and eventually was appointed warden of the Royal Mint, settling in London in 1696. He took his duties at the Mint very seriously and campaigned against corruption and inefficiency within the organization. In 1703, he was elected president of the Royal Society, an office he held until his death. He was knighted in 1705. By the early 1700s Newton was the dominant figure in British and European science. He died on March 20, 1727 (31 March, Gregorian) in London, England and was buried in Westminster Abbey (BBC.co.uk).
After his burial, he was exhumed so he could be buried in a more prominent location in Westminster Abbey and in this process it was discovered that Newton had large amounts of mercury in his body, probably as a direct result of his alchemical experiments. Exposure to large amounts of mercury may explain Newton’s eccentricity in his latter years, as well as his cause of death (Conservapedia, 2007).
Newton’s contributions to the sciences involve the fields of optics, mathematics, mechanics, gravitation, chemistry and alchemy.
In the field of Optics, he discovered measurable, mathematical patterns in the phenomenon of color. He found “white light to be a mixture of infinitely varied colored rays (manifest in the rainbow and the spectrum), each ray definable by the angle through which it is refracted on entering or leaving a given transparent medium”(Hall). He correlated this notion with his study of the interference colors of thin films using a simple technique of extreme acuity to measure the thickness of such films. He held that light consisted of streams of minute particles. From his experiments he could infer the magnitudes of the transparent “corpuscles” forming the surfaces of bodies, which, according to their dimensions, so interacted with white light as to reflect, selectively, the different observed colors of those surfaces (Hall).
In Mathematics, Newton made contributions to all its branches, but is especially famous for his solutions to the contemporary problems in analytical geometry of drawing tangents to curves (differentiation) and defining areas bounded by curves (integration). Not only did Newton discover that these problems were inverse to each other, but he discovered general methods of resolving problems of curvature, embraced in his “method of fluxions” and “inverse method of fluxions” which is later known as calculus (BuddenbrooksInc).
In the field of mechanics and gravitation, Newton published his greatest work the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Principia) – arguably the greatest scientific book ever written. The Principia, composed of several volumes, states the foundations of the science of mechanics, developing upon them the mathematics of orbital motion round centers of force. A volume discussed the theory of fluids: Newton solves problems of fluids in movement and of motion through fluids. From the density of air he calculated the speed of sound waves. Another volume showed the law of gravitation at work in the universe:
Newton demonstrates it from the revolutions of the six known planets, including the Earth, and their satellites. However, he could never quite perfect the difficult theory of the Moon’s motion. Comets were shown to obey the same law
In later editions, Newton added conjectures on the possibility of their return. He calculated the relative masses of heavenly bodies from their gravitational forces, and the oblateness of Earth and Jupiter, already observed. He explained tidal ebb and flow and the precession of the equinoxes from the forces exerted by the Sun and Moon. All this was done by exact computation (Hall).
Despite his genius, Newton was a complicated man. He would suffer emotional breakdowns and would engage other scientists in arguments, he would also cut himself off from the rest of the world and go into seclusion. The world has also seen, during his fight with Leibniz, what great lengths he would employ to come out on top. These small things may be attributed to the fact that at some points in his life the world seemed to act in consonance and revolted against him, however, neither criticism nor accusations could suppress his genius. All throughout his life, he kept his secret weapon – he had an incomparable passion for learning.
BBC.co.uk. Isaac Newton. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/newton_isaac.shtml
BuddenbrooksInc. Sir Isaac Newton’s Invention of the Calculus Fluxions and Infinite Series–The Important First Edition. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from http://www.polybiblio.com/bud/19178.html
Conservapedia (2007, November 8). Isaac Newton. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from http://www.conservapedia.com/Isaac_Newton
Hall, Alfred Rupert. Isaac Newton’s Life. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from http://www.newton.cam.ac.uk/newtlife.html
Hatch, Robert (2002). Isaac Newton. Retrieved, December 8, 2007, from http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/rhatch/pages/01-Courses/current-courses/08sr-newton.htm
Robertson, E.F. and J. J. O’Connor (2000 January). Sir Isaac Newton. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Newton.html
The Newton Project. Newton’s Life and Work at a Glance. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/prism.php?id=15
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