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What Do We Know About Isaac Newton’s Early Life?

What Do We Know About Isaac Newton’s Early Life?

He is remembered as a key figure in the scientific revolution and his supposed encounter with an apple as a young adult is frequently alluded to. But how did Isaac Newton’s childhood and early ideas lay the foundation for his later breakthroughs in science, making him, arguably, our greatest ever scientist?

Early solitude

All children enjoy play. It’s how they learn. But young Isaac Newton’s ideas on play were never of the rough-and-tumble variety that most youngsters enjoy.

Born a gentleman-farmer’s posthumous son in 1642, he had the countryside of seventeenth-century rural Lincolnshire as his playground. Despite this there are no references to him climbing trees, exploring woods and paddling in streams like other children.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton’s childhood home, as shown on page 76 of Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life, by William Stukeley, 1752 (Credit: Public Domain).

He may have done these things, but he would probably have been solitary. His grandmother – his early-years guardian – was aware of the family’s social standing as minor gentry and the local lads were considered unsuitable as Isaac’s playmates. Throughout his life, these early deprivations of peer friendship made Newton a loner.

He later recorded in his notes that, while attending the Grammar School in Grantham in the 1650s, he tried to involve his school fellows in what he called ‘philosophical play’ but they weren’t interested. Mental games suited Newton but physical activities, like chasing and wrestling, were more their style.

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Newton wasn’t sedentary, however, and wrote about performing some wind-assisted jumping experiments – testing how much the strength of the wind enhanced or impeded the distance jumped.

Of course, he had no means of accurately gauging this, although it’s thought he made a basic anemometer to measure the wind’s force, whether lighter or stronger, if not its precise speed. Lengths of string could be used to show relative distances jumped, but only he could guesstimate whether the effort he put into each jump was identical so that the wind was the only variable.

Whatever the shortcomings of these first experiments, they demonstrate how the mechanics of the natural world intrigued him from childhood. His enthusiasm to explore them would remain throughout his long life.

Early inventions

Newton’s school fellows were fascinated by some of the toys he made, if not by the intricacies of manufacture. Lanterns that hung from kites, looking like ghosts in the dark, frightened the locals.

When a new windmill was under construction in Grantham, Newton observed and built his own working model, powered by a mouse running in a sort of hamster wheel. Newton complained that as often as not, ‘Mr Miller’, as he called the creature, ate the grain he was supposed to be grinding but the model was a considerable achievement, with hand-carved gears and axels.

J.M.W. Turner, North East View of Grantham Church, Lincolnshire, c.1797 (Credit: Public Domain).

Newton also made dolls house furniture for the Clarke girls while lodging at William Clarke’s apothecary shop in Grantham, and a wheeled cart that he used like a skateboard along the corridors of the Clarke house. Maybe these speeding antics seeded his later ideas on motion and inertia.

The sources of Newton’s undeniable manual dexterity are difficult to track down. He obviously had some inborn talent but perhaps a servant at his home, Woolsthorpe Manor, showed him some basic carpentry skills and the use of tools.

William Clarke may have taught him woodworking, metalworking and how to handle glass. We know that Clarke showed him how to mix and distil medicinal remedies – knowledge that he later developed and refined in his alchemical studies and experimentation.

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Telescopes

In 1660, aged seventeen, Newton went up to Cambridge University. In those days, the nearby Stourbridge Fair, held annually in September, was the seventeenth-century’s version of e-bay, where almost anything could be purchased, from ink to ironmongery, spices to spectacles. Newton bought a prism there and, possibly, other glass objects such as lenses and mirrors.

At first, he played with the prism, admiring the pretty rainbows, but that was not enough of a wonder for him.

He had to know how and where the colours came from when colourless daylight shone through colourless glass. Others argued it was the effect of the glass creating the colours which were thought to consist of degrees of light and shade.

Bird’s eye view of Trinity College, Cambridge, with Great Gate and Great Court in the foreground, Nevile’s Court and Wren Library in the background. David Loggan print, 1690 (Credit: Public Domain).

Newton disproved this with his ‘crucial experiment’, showing the colours are there, combined in the white light, and can be separated and made visible when the glass refracts them by differing degrees.

Newton taught himself how to grind lenses and polish mirrors to perfection. Combining these skills with his knowledge of metalwork and carpentry enabled him to make his small but remarkably efficient refracting telescope. This beautiful instrument earned him membership of the Royal Society of London in 1672.

Demonstrable truths

Newton isn’t renowned for his work as an astronomer, using his telescope simply to observe planets, stars and moons for pleasure or scientific study. Others could do that.

Rather, he wanted to know how and why heavenly bodies kept their places and moved in the way they did. The certainty that ‘something’ kept the stars in position led to his theory of gravity – an invisible force that applied throughout the universe.

Portrait of Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689 (Credit: Public Domain).

This was an unpopular concept at a time when science was abandoning mystical ideas in favour of demonstrable truths. The possibility that the moon’s gravitation pull influenced the tides on earth was something he worked to quantify all his life.

Before other scientists, Newton realised the planetary movements, their orbits, obeyed the inverse square law. While his fellows at the Royal Society suspected it might be the case, he had already worked out the mathematical equations to prove it was so. By this means, he advanced mathematics into the new discipline of ‘fluxions’, or calculus, as it is known today.

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These were a few of Isaac Newton’s early ideas and the foundations for his later work. However, his entire life in science was always a work-in-progress. He was rarely content with the finished piece; theories could be improved, mathematical equations checked and rechecked.

He was still endeavouring to perfect his work, learning and evolving ideas until his death at the age of eighty-four. Perhaps it was his never-ending quest to get it right that made him our greatest ever scientist.

The World of Isaac Newton by Toni Mount is published by Amberley Publishing on 15 October 2020. Toni is a writer, history teacher and speaker with thirty years of personal and academic study. Her first career was in science before spending many years teaching. This latest study, The World of Isaac Newton, sees her return to her first love, science, with the chance to take a fresh look at one of the world’s most famous characters.


The Scientific Revolution (1500-1750) is regarded as a period in Western history that was the precursor to the modern world. Through the rediscovery of classical Greek texts during the Renaissance emerged the ideas of empiricism and procuring truths through inductive reasoning. People started to question religious dogmas and would eventually subject society and government to the same scrutiny as that of scientific experiments. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was central to the Revolution and his work revolutionized the fields of motion and optics, amongst other subjects. He is considered the greatest scientific mind of his time and many compare him to Plato, Aristotle, and Galileo, given the extent to which his discoveries impacted Western thought.

This guide has been divided so that it starts broad and gradually focuses on Sir Isaac Newton. It opens with a General Overview of the Scientific Revolution, with books and a short film on the subject. Then the guide provides primary and secondary sources on Newton’s life, his work, and its repercussions. These include books, websites, and databases. Research Guides related to the Revolution are provided at the end, for further guidance.


10 Things You Didn't Know About Isaac Newton

Happy Birthday to Isaac Newton (sort of: skip to #5 for the scoop on that)! Although he's been a household name since his time, there's more to Isaac than meets the apple. Here are 10 facts you may not have known about Newton.

1. He really did not like his stepfather.

Newton was an avid list maker and one of his preserved lists included all of the sins he felt he had committed up until the age of 19 (his age at the time). One of them included, "Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them." You can't hardly blame the guy, though. When Smith proposed to Isaac's mother, Isaac wasn't part of the deal. The three-year-old Isaac was sent to live with his grandmother.

2. He wasn't expected to survive as a child.

He was born quite premature: an estimated 11 to 15 weeks early. His mother said he could fit in a quart-sized cup upon birth.

3. That apple thing? Never happened.

At least, not the way the legend goes. The story you probably know is that Mr. Newton was sitting under a tree contemplating life when an apple struck him on the head, simultaneously making a light bulb about gravity go off. The real story according to the man himself is that Newton was merely looking out the window when he happened to see the fruit drop. Even then, some Newton scholars think the story involving the apple was entirely made up.

4. He was a stutterer, but it puts him in good company.

Other people who habitually tripped over their tongues included Aristotle, Moses, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin.

5. Despite being born on January 4, he was born on Christmas Day.

I know, confusing. At the time of his birth, the Gregorian calendar hadn't been adopted by England yet (it took them until 1752, and Newton was born in 1643). Records indicate that Isaac was born on Christmas and baptized on New Year's Day. When the Gregorian calendar was finally adopted by England, it needed adjusted by 11 days, making January 4 Isaac's recognized birthday.

6.Worried about the supposed apocalypse in 2012? Never fear: Newton spent a lot of time studying the subject.

In fact, he believed that God had chosen him specifically to interpret the Bible — and concluded that the world would end no sooner than 2060. "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be," he explained, "but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

7. He was a genius, to be sure, but not much of a politician.

In his year as a member of parliament, he spoke up only once — and that was to tell someone to close a window.

8. Think the Philosopher's Stone is just Harry Potter lore? Newton didn't.

OK, Newton didn't know about Harry Potter, but you know what I mean. A bunch of his papers were deemed "unfit to publish" upon his death in 1727 and remained so until 1936, when Sotheby's auction house acquired and sold most of them to economist John Maynard Keynes. These included the papers on the Philosopher's Stone (thought to turn lead into gold and possibly be an elixir of life) and his prediction about the end of the world.

9. His dog set his laboratory on fire, ruining 20 years of research.

At least, that's the story Newton told. Some historians believe that Newton never even owned a dog, hypothesizing that he left a window open and a gust of wind knocked over a lit candle. But the dog story lives on — it was recorded as early as 1833 in The Life of Sir Isaac Newton. When he saw what man's best friend had done, Newton is said to have exclaimed, "O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done."

10. Late in life, Newton suffered a nervous breakdown and became known for rather eccentric behavior.

But it probably wasn't his fault. A 1979 examination of Newton's hair showed astronomical amounts of mercury, probably as a result of all of his alchemy experiments. Too much mercury can drive a man mad, of course, and that may have been exactly what it did to Isaac Newton. Then again, maybe not: the other side of the argument is that Newton never lost his hair (although he was gray by the age of 30 and attributed it to his studies with mercury) and never had bleeding gums, two very prominent symptoms of mercury poisoning.


Contents

Early life

Isaac Newton was born (according to the Julian calendar, in use in England at the time) on Christmas Day, 25 December 1642 (NS 4 January 1643 [a] ) "an hour or two after midnight", [7] at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire. His father, also named Isaac Newton, had died three months before. Born prematurely, Newton was a small child his mother Hannah Ayscough reportedly said that he could have fit inside a quart mug. [8] When Newton was three, his mother remarried and went to live with her new husband, the Reverend Barnabas Smith, leaving her son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough (née Blythe). Newton disliked his stepfather and maintained some enmity towards his mother for marrying him, as revealed by this entry in a list of sins committed up to the age of 19: "Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them." [9] Newton's mother had three children (Mary, Benjamin and Hannah) from her second marriage. [10]

From the age of about twelve until he was seventeen, Newton was educated at The King's School, Grantham, which taught Latin and Greek and probably imparted a significant foundation of mathematics. [11] He was removed from school and returned to Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth by October 1659. His mother, widowed for the second time, attempted to make him a farmer, an occupation he hated. [12] Henry Stokes, master at The King's School, persuaded his mother to send him back to school. Motivated partly by a desire for revenge against a schoolyard bully, he became the top-ranked student, [13] distinguishing himself mainly by building sundials and models of windmills. [14]

In June 1661, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, on the recommendation of his uncle Rev William Ayscough, who had studied there. He started as a subsizar—paying his way by performing valet's duties—until he was awarded a scholarship in 1664, guaranteeing him four more years until he could get his MA. [15] At that time, the college's teachings were based on those of Aristotle, whom Newton supplemented with modern philosophers such as Descartes, and astronomers such as Galileo and Thomas Street, through whom he learned of Kepler's work. [ citation needed ] He set down in his notebook a series of "Quaestiones" about mechanical philosophy as he found it. In 1665, he discovered the generalised binomial theorem and began to develop a mathematical theory that later became calculus. Soon after Newton had obtained his BA degree in August 1665, the university temporarily closed as a precaution against the Great Plague. Although he had been undistinguished as a Cambridge student, [16] Newton's private studies at his home in Woolsthorpe over the subsequent two years saw the development of his theories on calculus, [17] optics, and the law of gravitation.

In April 1667, he returned to Cambridge and in October was elected as a fellow of Trinity. [18] [19] Fellows were required to become ordained priests, although this was not enforced in the restoration years and an assertion of conformity to the Church of England was sufficient. However, by 1675 the issue could not be avoided and by then his unconventional views stood in the way. [20] Nevertheless, Newton managed to avoid it by means of special permission from Charles II.

His studies had impressed the Lucasian professor Isaac Barrow, who was more anxious to develop his own religious and administrative potential (he became master of Trinity two years later) in 1669 Newton succeeded him, only one year after receiving his MA. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1672. [3]

Middle years

Mathematics

Newton's work has been said "to distinctly advance every branch of mathematics then studied". [22] His work on the subject, usually referred to as fluxions or calculus, seen in a manuscript of October 1666, is now published among Newton's mathematical papers. [23] His work De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas, sent by Isaac Barrow to John Collins in June 1669, was identified by Barrow in a letter sent to Collins that August as the work "of an extraordinary genius and proficiency in these things". [24]

Newton later became involved in a dispute with Leibniz over priority in the development of calculus (the Leibniz–Newton calculus controversy). Most modern historians believe that Newton and Leibniz developed calculus independently, although with very different mathematical notations. Occasionally it has been suggested that Newton published almost nothing about it until 1693, and did not give a full account until 1704, while Leibniz began publishing a full account of his methods in 1684. Leibniz's notation and "differential Method", nowadays recognised as much more convenient notations, were adopted by continental European mathematicians, and after 1820 or so, also by British mathematicians. [ citation needed ]

His work extensively uses calculus in geometric form based on limiting values of the ratios of vanishingly small quantities: in Principia itself, Newton gave demonstration of this under the name of "the method of first and last ratios" [25] and explained why he put his expositions in this form, [26] remarking also that "hereby the same thing is performed as by the method of indivisibles." [27]

Because of this, the Principia has been called "a book dense with the theory and application of the infinitesimal calculus" in modern times [28] and in Newton's time "nearly all of it is of this calculus." [29] His use of methods involving "one or more orders of the infinitesimally small" is present in his De motu corporum in gyrum of 1684 [30] and in his papers on motion "during the two decades preceding 1684". [31]

Newton had been reluctant to publish his calculus because he feared controversy and criticism. [32] He was close to the Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier. In 1691, Duillier started to write a new version of Newton's Principia, and corresponded with Leibniz. [33] In 1693, the relationship between Duillier and Newton deteriorated and the book was never completed. [ citation needed ]

Starting in 1699, other members [ who? ] of the Royal Society accused Leibniz of plagiarism. [34] The dispute then broke out in full force in 1711 when the Royal Society proclaimed in a study that it was Newton who was the true discoverer and labelled Leibniz a fraud it was later found that Newton wrote the study's concluding remarks on Leibniz. Thus began the bitter controversy which marred the lives of both Newton and Leibniz until the latter's death in 1716. [35]

Newton is generally credited with the generalised binomial theorem, valid for any exponent. He discovered Newton's identities, Newton's method, classified cubic plane curves (polynomials of degree three in two variables), made substantial contributions to the theory of finite differences, and was the first to use fractional indices and to employ coordinate geometry to derive solutions to Diophantine equations. He approximated partial sums of the harmonic series by logarithms (a precursor to Euler's summation formula) and was the first to use power series with confidence and to revert power series. Newton's work on infinite series was inspired by Simon Stevin's decimals. [36]

When Newton received his MA and became a Fellow of the "College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity" in 1667, he made the commitment that "I will either set Theology as the object of my studies and will take holy orders when the time prescribed by these statutes [7 years] arrives, or I will resign from the college." [37] Up until this point he had not thought much about religion and had twice signed his agreement to the thirty-nine articles, the basis of Church of England doctrine.

He was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669, on Barrow's recommendation. During that time, any Fellow of a college at Cambridge or Oxford was required to take holy orders and become an ordained Anglican priest. However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required that the holder not be active in the church – presumably, [ weasel words ] so as to have more time for science. Newton argued that this should exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose permission was needed, accepted this argument. Thus a conflict between Newton's religious views and Anglican orthodoxy was averted. [38]

Optics

In 1666, Newton observed that the spectrum of colours exiting a prism in the position of minimum deviation is oblong, even when the light ray entering the prism is circular, which is to say, the prism refracts different colours by different angles. [40] [41] This led him to conclude that colour is a property intrinsic to light – a point which had, until then, been a matter of debate.

From 1670 to 1672, Newton lectured on optics. [42] During this period he investigated the refraction of light, demonstrating that the multicoloured spectrum produced by a prism could be recomposed into white light by a lens and a second prism. [43] Modern scholarship has revealed that Newton's analysis and resynthesis of white light owes a debt to corpuscular alchemy. [44]

He showed that coloured light does not change its properties by separating out a coloured beam and shining it on various objects, and that regardless of whether reflected, scattered, or transmitted, the light remains the same colour. Thus, he observed that colour is the result of objects interacting with already-coloured light rather than objects generating the colour themselves. This is known as Newton's theory of colour. [45]

From this work, he concluded that the lens of any refracting telescope would suffer from the dispersion of light into colours (chromatic aberration). As a proof of the concept, he constructed a telescope using reflective mirrors instead of lenses as the objective to bypass that problem. [46] [47] Building the design, the first known functional reflecting telescope, today known as a Newtonian telescope, [47] involved solving the problem of a suitable mirror material and shaping technique. Newton ground his own mirrors out of a custom composition of highly reflective speculum metal, using Newton's rings to judge the quality of the optics for his telescopes. In late 1668, [48] he was able to produce this first reflecting telescope. It was about eight inches long and it gave a clearer and larger image. In 1671, the Royal Society asked for a demonstration of his reflecting telescope. [49] Their interest encouraged him to publish his notes, Of Colours, [50] which he later expanded into the work Opticks. When Robert Hooke criticised some of Newton's ideas, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. Newton and Hooke had brief exchanges in 1679–80, when Hooke, appointed to manage the Royal Society's correspondence, opened up a correspondence intended to elicit contributions from Newton to Royal Society transactions, [51] which had the effect of stimulating Newton to work out a proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector. But the two men remained generally on poor terms until Hooke's death. [52]

Newton argued that light is composed of particles or corpuscles, which were refracted by accelerating into a denser medium. He verged on soundlike waves to explain the repeated pattern of reflection and transmission by thin films (Opticks Bk.II, Props. 12), but still retained his theory of 'fits' that disposed corpuscles to be reflected or transmitted (Props.13). However, later physicists favoured a purely wavelike explanation of light to account for the interference patterns and the general phenomenon of diffraction. Today's quantum mechanics, photons, and the idea of wave–particle duality bear only a minor resemblance to Newton's understanding of light.

In his Hypothesis of Light of 1675, Newton posited the existence of the ether to transmit forces between particles. The contact with the Cambridge Platonist philosopher Henry More revived his interest in alchemy. [53] He replaced the ether with occult forces based on Hermetic ideas of attraction and repulsion between particles. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton's writings on alchemy, stated that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians." [54] Newton's interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science. [53] This was at a time when there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science. Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity.

In 1704, Newton published Opticks, in which he expounded his corpuscular theory of light. He considered light to be made up of extremely subtle corpuscles, that ordinary matter was made of grosser corpuscles and speculated that through a kind of alchemical transmutation "Are not gross Bodies and Light convertible into one another, . and may not Bodies receive much of their Activity from the Particles of Light which enter their Composition?" [55] Newton also constructed a primitive form of a frictional electrostatic generator, using a glass globe. [56]

In his book Opticks, Newton was the first to show a diagram using a prism as a beam expander, and also the use of multiple-prism arrays. [57] Some 278 years after Newton's discussion, multiple-prism beam expanders became central to the development of narrow-linewidth tunable lasers. Also, the use of these prismatic beam expanders led to the multiple-prism dispersion theory. [57]

Subsequent to Newton, much has been amended. Young and Fresnel combined Newton's particle theory with Huygens' wave theory to show that colour is the visible manifestation of light's wavelength. Science also slowly came to realise the difference between perception of colour and mathematisable optics. The German poet and scientist, Goethe, could not shake the Newtonian foundation but "one hole Goethe did find in Newton's armour, . Newton had committed himself to the doctrine that refraction without colour was impossible. He, therefore, thought that the object-glasses of telescopes must forever remain imperfect, achromatism and refraction being incompatible. This inference was proved by Dollond to be wrong." [58]

Mechanics and gravitation

In 1679, Newton returned to his work on celestial mechanics by considering gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets with reference to Kepler's laws of planetary motion. This followed stimulation by a brief exchange of letters in 1679–80 with Hooke, who had been appointed to manage the Royal Society's correspondence, and who opened a correspondence intended to elicit contributions from Newton to Royal Society transactions. [51] Newton's reawakening interest in astronomical matters received further stimulus by the appearance of a comet in the winter of 1680–1681, on which he corresponded with John Flamsteed. [59] After the exchanges with Hooke, Newton worked out proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector. Newton communicated his results to Edmond Halley and to the Royal Society in De motu corporum in gyrum, a tract written on about nine sheets which was copied into the Royal Society's Register Book in December 1684. [60] This tract contained the nucleus that Newton developed and expanded to form the Principia.

The Principia was published on 5 July 1687 with encouragement and financial help from Edmond Halley. In this work, Newton stated the three universal laws of motion. Together, these laws describe the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it and the resulting motion, laying the foundation for classical mechanics. They contributed to many advances during the Industrial Revolution which soon followed and were not improved upon for more than 200 years. Many of these advancements continue to be the underpinnings of non-relativistic technologies in the modern world. He used the Latin word gravitas (weight) for the effect that would become known as gravity, and defined the law of universal gravitation. [61]

In the same work, Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis using 'first and last ratios', gave the first analytical determination (based on Boyle's law) of the speed of sound in air, inferred the oblateness of Earth's spheroidal figure, accounted for the precession of the equinoxes as a result of the Moon's gravitational attraction on the Earth's oblateness, initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the Moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more. [61]

Newton made clear his heliocentric view of the Solar System—developed in a somewhat modern way because already in the mid-1680s he recognised the "deviation of the Sun" from the centre of gravity of the Solar System. [62] For Newton, it was not precisely the centre of the Sun or any other body that could be considered at rest, but rather "the common centre of gravity of the Earth, the Sun and all the Planets is to be esteem'd the Centre of the World", and this centre of gravity "either is at rest or moves uniformly forward in a right line" (Newton adopted the "at rest" alternative in view of common consent that the centre, wherever it was, was at rest). [63]

Newton's postulate of an invisible force able to act over vast distances led to him being criticised for introducing "occult agencies" into science. [64] Later, in the second edition of the Principia (1713), Newton firmly rejected such criticisms in a concluding General Scholium, writing that it was enough that the phenomena implied a gravitational attraction, as they did but they did not so far indicate its cause, and it was both unnecessary and improper to frame hypotheses of things that were not implied by the phenomena. (Here Newton used what became his famous expression "hypotheses non-fingo" [65] ).

With the Principia, Newton became internationally recognised. [66] He acquired a circle of admirers, including the Swiss-born mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier. [67]

Classification of cubics

In 1710, Newton found 72 of the 78 "species" of cubic curves and categorised them into four types. [68] In 1717, and probably with Newton's help, James Stirling proved that every cubic was one of these four types. Newton also claimed that the four types could be obtained by plane projection from one of them, and this was proved in 1731, four years after his death. [69]

Later life

In the 1690s, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal and symbolic interpretation of the Bible. A manuscript Newton sent to John Locke in which he disputed the fidelity of 1 John 5:7—the Johannine Comma—and its fidelity to the original manuscripts of the New Testament, remained unpublished until 1785. [70]

Newton was also a member of the Parliament of England for Cambridge University in 1689 and 1701, but according to some accounts his only comments were to complain about a cold draught in the chamber and request that the window be closed. [71] He was, however, noted by Cambridge diarist Abraham de la Pryme to have rebuked students who were frightening locals by claiming that a house was haunted. [72]

Newton moved to London to take up the post of warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, a position that he had obtained through the patronage of Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. He took charge of England's great recoining, trod on the toes of Lord Lucas, Governor of the Tower, and secured the job of deputy comptroller of the temporary Chester branch for Edmond Halley. Newton became perhaps the best-known Master of the Mint upon the death of Thomas Neale in 1699, a position Newton held for the last 30 years of his life. [73] [74] These appointments were intended as sinecures, but Newton took them seriously. He retired from his Cambridge duties in 1701, and exercised his authority to reform the currency and punish clippers and counterfeiters.

As Warden, and afterwards as Master, of the Royal Mint, Newton estimated that 20 percent of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit. Counterfeiting was high treason, punishable by the felon being hanged, drawn and quartered. Despite this, convicting even the most flagrant criminals could be extremely difficult, however, Newton proved equal to the task. [75]

Disguised as a habitué of bars and taverns, he gathered much of that evidence himself. [76] For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the branches of government, English law still had ancient and formidable customs of authority. Newton had himself made a justice of the peace in all the home counties. A draft letter regarding the matter is included in Newton's personal first edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which he must have been amending at the time. [77] Then he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects between June 1698 and Christmas 1699. Newton successfully prosecuted 28 coiners. [78]

Newton was made President of the Royal Society in 1703 and an associate of the French Académie des Sciences. In his position at the Royal Society, Newton made an enemy of John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, by prematurely publishing Flamsteed's Historia Coelestis Britannica, which Newton had used in his studies. [80]

In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge. The knighthood is likely to have been motivated by political considerations connected with the parliamentary election in May 1705, rather than any recognition of Newton's scientific work or services as Master of the Mint. [81] Newton was the second scientist to be knighted, after Francis Bacon. [82]

As a result of a report written by Newton on 21 September 1717 to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury, the bimetallic relationship between gold coins and silver coins was changed by royal proclamation on 22 December 1717, forbidding the exchange of gold guineas for more than 21 silver shillings. [83] This inadvertently resulted in a silver shortage as silver coins were used to pay for imports, while exports were paid for in gold, effectively moving Britain from the silver standard to its first gold standard. It is a matter of debate as to whether he intended to do this or not. [84] It has been argued that Newton conceived of his work at the Mint as a continuation of his alchemical work. [85]

Newton was invested in the South Sea Company and lost some £20,000 (£4.4 million in 2020 [86] ) when it collapsed in around 1720. [87]

Toward the end of his life, Newton took up residence at Cranbury Park, near Winchester with his niece and her husband, until his death in 1727. [88] His half-niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, [89] served as his hostess in social affairs at his house on Jermyn Street in London he was her "very loving Uncle", [90] according to his letter to her when she was recovering from smallpox.

Personal relations

Although it was claimed that he was once engaged, [b] Newton never married. The French writer and philosopher Voltaire, who was in London at the time of Newton's funeral, said that he "was never sensible to any passion, was not subject to the common frailties of mankind, nor had any commerce with women—a circumstance which was assured me by the physician and surgeon who attended him in his last moments". [92] This now-widespread belief that he died a virgin has been commented on by writers as diverse as mathematician Charles Hutton, [93] economist John Maynard Keynes, [94] and physicist Carl Sagan. [95]

Newton had a close friendship with the Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, whom he met in London around 1689 [67] —some of their correspondence has survived. [96] [97] Their relationship came to an abrupt and unexplained end in 1693, and at the same time Newton suffered a nervous breakdown [98] which included sending wild accusatory letters to his friends Samuel Pepys and John Locke—his note to the latter included the charge that Locke "endeavoured to embroil me with woemen". [99]

In 2015, Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, called Newton "a nasty antagonist" and "a bad man to have as an enemy". [100] He particularly noted Newton's attitude towards Robert Hooke and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Death

Newton died in his sleep in London on 20 March 1727 (OS 20 March 1726 NS 31 March 1727). [a] His body was buried in Westminster Abbey. [101] Voltaire may have been present at his funeral. [102] A bachelor, he had divested much of his estate to relatives during his last years, and died intestate. [103] His papers went to John Conduitt and Catherine Barton. [104] After his death, Newton's hair was examined and found to contain mercury, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. Mercury poisoning could explain Newton's eccentricity in late life. [103]

The mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange said that Newton was the greatest genius who ever lived, and once added that Newton was also "the most fortunate, for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish." [105] English poet Alexander Pope wrote the famous epitaph:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light.

Newton was relatively modest about his achievements, writing in a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1676, stating "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." [106]

Two writers think that the above quotation, written at a time when Newton and Hooke were in dispute over optical discoveries, was an oblique attack on Hooke (said to have been short and hunchbacked), rather than—or in addition to—a statement of modesty. [107] [108] On the other hand, the widely known proverb about standing on the shoulders of giants, published among others by seventeenth-century poet George Herbert (a former orator of the University of Cambridge and fellow of Trinity College) in his Jacula Prudentum (1651), had as its main point that "a dwarf on a giant's shoulders sees farther of the two", and so its effect as an analogy would place Newton himself rather than Hooke as the 'dwarf'.

In a later memoir, Newton wrote:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. [109]

In 1816, a tooth said to have belonged to Newton was sold for £730 [110] ( US$ 3,633) in London to an aristocrat who had it set in a ring. [111] Guinness World Records 2002 classified it as the most valuable tooth, which would value approximately £25,000 ( US$ 35,700) in late 2001. [111] Who bought it and who currently has it has not been disclosed.

Albert Einstein kept a picture of Newton on his study wall alongside ones of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. [112] In a 2005 survey of members of Britain's Royal Society (formerly headed by Newton) asking who had the greater effect on the history of science, Newton or Einstein, the members deemed Newton to have made the greater overall contribution. [113] In 1999, an opinion poll of 100 of the day's leading physicists voted Einstein the "greatest physicist ever," with Newton the runner-up, while a parallel survey of rank-and-file physicists by the site PhysicsWeb gave the top spot to Newton. [114]

The SI derived unit of force is named the Newton in his honour.

Commemorations

Newton's monument (1731) can be seen in Westminster Abbey, at the north of the entrance to the choir against the choir screen, near his tomb. It was executed by the sculptor Michael Rysbrack (1694–1770) in white and grey marble with design by the architect William Kent. [115] The monument features a figure of Newton reclining on top of a sarcophagus, his right elbow resting on several of his great books and his left hand pointing to a scroll with a mathematical design. Above him is a pyramid and a celestial globe showing the signs of the Zodiac and the path of the comet of 1680. A relief panel depicts putti using instruments such as a telescope and prism. [116] The Latin inscription on the base translates as:

Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25 December 1642, and died on 20 March 1726/7.—Translation from G.L. Smyth, The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul's Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey (1826), ii, 703–704. [116]

From 1978 until 1988, an image of Newton designed by Harry Ecclestone appeared on Series D £1 banknotes issued by the Bank of England (the last £1 notes to be issued by the Bank of England). Newton was shown on the reverse of the notes holding a book and accompanied by a telescope, a prism and a map of the Solar System. [117]

A statue of Isaac Newton, looking at an apple at his feet, can be seen at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. A large bronze statue, Newton, after William Blake, by Eduardo Paolozzi, dated 1995 and inspired by Blake's etching, dominates the piazza of the British Library in London.

Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that, had it been made public, would not have been considered orthodox by mainstream Christianity, [118] with one historian labelling him a heretic. [119]

By 1672, he had started to record his theological researches in notebooks which he showed to no one and which have only recently [ when? ] been examined. They demonstrate an extensive knowledge of early Church writings and show that in the conflict between Athanasius and Arius which defined the Creed, he took the side of Arius, the loser, who rejected the conventional view of the Trinity. Newton "recognized Christ as a divine mediator between God and man, who was subordinate to the Father who created him." [120] He was especially interested in prophecy, but for him, "the great apostasy was trinitarianism." [121]

Newton tried unsuccessfully to obtain one of the two fellowships that exempted the holder from the ordination requirement. At the last moment in 1675 he received a dispensation from the government that excused him and all future holders of the Lucasian chair. [122]

In Newton's eyes, worshipping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin. [123] In 1999, historian Stephen D. Snobelen wrote, "Isaac Newton was a heretic. But . he never made a public declaration of his private faith—which the orthodox would have deemed extremely radical. He hid his faith so well that scholars are still unraveling his personal beliefs." [119] Snobelen concludes that Newton was at least a Socinian sympathiser (he owned and had thoroughly read at least eight Socinian books), possibly an Arian and almost certainly an anti-trinitarian. [119]

In a minority position, T.C. Pfizenmaier offers a more nuanced view, arguing that Newton held closer to the Semi-Arian view of the Trinity that Jesus Christ was of a "similar substance" (homoiousios) from the Father rather than the orthodox view that Jesus Christ is of the "same substance" of the Father (homoousios) as endorsed by modern Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Protestants. [124] However, this type of view 'has lost support of late with the availability of Newton's theological papers', [125] and now most scholars identify Newton as an Antitrinitarian monotheist. [119] [126]

Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton's best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the Universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, "So then gravity may put the planets into motion, but without the Divine Power it could never put them into such a circulating motion, as they have about the sun". [128]

Along with his scientific fame, Newton's studies of the Bible and of the early Church Fathers were also noteworthy. Newton wrote works on textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John. [129] He placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which agrees with one traditionally accepted date. [130]

He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. The ordered and dynamically informed Universe could be understood, and must be understood, by an active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia "I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity". [131] He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: "Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice". But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities. [132] For this, Leibniz lampooned him: "God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion." [133]

Newton's position was vigorously defended by his follower Samuel Clarke in a famous correspondence. A century later, Pierre-Simon Laplace's work Celestial Mechanics had a natural explanation for why the planet orbits do not require periodic divine intervention. [134] The contrast between Laplace's mechanistic worldview and Newton's one is the most strident considering the famous answer which the French scientist gave Napoleon, who had criticised him for the absence of the Creator in the Mécanique céleste: "Sire, j'ai pu me passer de cette hypothese" ("I do not need such a hypothesis"). [135]

Scholars long debated whether Newton disputed the doctrine of the Trinity. His first biographer, David Brewster, who compiled his manuscripts, interpreted Newton as questioning the veracity of some passages used to support the Trinity, but never denying the doctrine of the Trinity as such. [136] In the twentieth century, encrypted manuscripts written by Newton and bought by John Maynard Keynes (among others) were deciphered [54] and it became known that Newton did indeed reject Trinitarianism. [119]

Effect on religious thought

Newton and Robert Boyle's approach to the mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers as well as dissident preachers like the latitudinarians. [137] The clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of both superstitious enthusiasm and the threat of atheism, [138] and at the same time, the second wave of English deists used Newton's discoveries to demonstrate the possibility of a "Natural Religion".

The attacks made against pre-Enlightenment "magical thinking", and the mystical elements of Christianity, were given their foundation with Boyle's mechanical conception of the universe. Newton gave Boyle's ideas their completion through mathematical proofs and, perhaps more importantly, was very successful in popularising them. [139]

Occult

In a manuscript he wrote in 1704 (never intended to be published), he mentions the date of 2060, but it is not given as a date for the end of days. It has been falsely reported as a prediction. [140] The passage is clear when the date is read in context. He was against date setting for the end of days, concerned that this would put Christianity into disrepute.

So then the time times & half a time [sic] are 42 months or 1260 days or three years & an half, recconing twelve months to a year & 30 days to a month as was done in the Calender [sic] of the primitive year. And the days of short lived Beasts being put for the years of [long-]lived kingdoms the period of 1260 days, if dated from the complete conquest of the three kings A.C. 800, will end 2060. It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner. [141]
This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail. Christ comes as a thief in the night, and it is not for us to know the times and seasons which God hath put into his own breast. [142] [140]

Alchemy

In the character of Morton Opperly in "Poor Superman" (1951), speculative fiction author Fritz Leiber says of Newton, "Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher's stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find." [143]

Of an estimated ten million words of writing in Newton's papers, about one million deal with alchemy. Many of Newton's writings on alchemy are copies of other manuscripts, with his own annotations. [104] Alchemical texts mix artisanal knowledge with philosophical speculation, often hidden behind layers of wordplay, allegory, and imagery to protect craft secrets. [144] Some of the content contained in Newton's papers could have been considered heretical by the church. [104]

In 1888, after spending sixteen years cataloguing Newton's papers, Cambridge University kept a small number and returned the rest to the Earl of Portsmouth. In 1936, a descendant offered the papers for sale at Sotheby's. [145] The collection was broken up and sold for a total of about £9,000. [146] John Maynard Keynes was one of about three dozen bidders who obtained part of the collection at auction. Keynes went on to reassemble an estimated half of Newton's collection of papers on alchemy before donating his collection to Cambridge University in 1946. [104] [145] [147]

All of Newton's known writings on alchemy are currently being put online in a project undertaken by Indiana University: "The Chymistry of Isaac Newton" [148] and summarised in a book. [149] [150]

Newton's fundamental contributions to science include the quantification of gravitational attraction, the discovery that white light is actually a mixture of immutable spectral colors, and the formulation of the calculus. Yet there is another, more mysterious side to Newton that is imperfectly known, a realm of activity that spanned some thirty years of his life, although he kept it largely hidden from his contemporaries and colleagues. We refer to Newton's involvement in the discipline of alchemy, or as it was often called in seventeenth-century England, "chymistry." [148]

Charles Coulston Gillispie disputes that Newton ever practised alchemy, saying that "his chemistry was in the spirit of Boyle's corpuscular philosophy." [151]

In June 2020, two unpublished pages of Newton's notes on Jan Baptist van Helmont's book on plague, De Peste, [152] were being auctioned online by Bonham's. Newton's analysis of this book, which he made in Cambridge while protecting himself from London's 1665–1666 infection, is the most substantial written statement he is known to have made about the plague, according to Bonham's. As far as the therapy is concerned, Newton writes that "the best is a toad suspended by the legs in a chimney for three days, which at last vomited up earth with various insects in it, on to a dish of yellow wax, and shortly after died. Combining powdered toad with the excretions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affected area drove away the contagion and drew out the poison". [153]

Enlightenment philosophers chose a short history of scientific predecessors—Galileo, Boyle, and Newton principally—as the guides and guarantors of their applications of the singular concept of nature and natural law to every physical and social field of the day. In this respect, the lessons of history and the social structures built upon it could be discarded. [154]

It was Newton's conception of the universe based upon natural and rationally understandable laws that became one of the seeds for Enlightenment ideology. [155] Locke and Voltaire applied concepts of natural law to political systems advocating intrinsic rights the physiocrats and Adam Smith applied natural conceptions of psychology and self-interest to economic systems and sociologists criticised the current social order for trying to fit history into natural models of progress. Monboddo and Samuel Clarke resisted elements of Newton's work, but eventually rationalised it to conform with their strong religious views of nature.

Newton himself often told the story that he was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. [156] [157] The story is believed to have passed into popular knowledge after being related by Catherine Barton, Newton's niece, to Voltaire. [158] Voltaire then wrote in his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727), "Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens, had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree." [159] [160]

Although it has been said that the apple story is a myth and that he did not arrive at his theory of gravity at any single moment, [161] acquaintances of Newton (such as William Stukeley, whose manuscript account of 1752 has been made available by the Royal Society) do in fact confirm the incident, though not the apocryphal version that the apple actually hit Newton's head. Stukeley recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726: [162] [163] [164]

we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. "why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground," thought he to him self: occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: "why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple."

John Conduitt, Newton's assistant at the Royal Mint and husband of Newton's niece, also described the event when he wrote about Newton's life: [165]

In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition.

It is known from his notebooks that Newton was grappling in the late 1660s with the idea that terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon however, it took him two decades to develop the full-fledged theory. [166] The question was not whether gravity existed, but whether it extended so far from Earth that it could also be the force holding the Moon to its orbit. Newton showed that if the force decreased as the inverse square of the distance, one could indeed calculate the Moon's orbital period, and get good agreement. He guessed the same force was responsible for other orbital motions, and hence named it "universal gravitation".

Various trees are claimed to be "the" apple tree which Newton describes. The King's School, Grantham claims that the tree was purchased by the school, uprooted and transported to the headmaster's garden some years later. The staff of the (now) National Trust-owned Woolsthorpe Manor dispute this, and claim that a tree present in their gardens is the one described by Newton. A descendant of the original tree [167] can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there. The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent [168] can supply grafts from their tree, which appears identical to Flower of Kent, a coarse-fleshed cooking variety. [169]


He created the law of universal gravitation and calculus

The Principa also contained some of Newton’s first published works on the motion of the planets and gravity. According to a popular legend, a young Newton was sitting beneath a tree on his family’s farm when the falling of an apple inspired one of his most famous theories. It’s impossible to know if this is true (and Newton himself only began telling the story as an older man), but is a helpful story to explain the science behind gravity. It also remained the basis of classical mechanics until Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Newton worked out that if the force of gravity pulled the apple from the tree, then it was also possible for gravity to exert its pull on objects much, much further away. Newton’s theory helped prove that all objects, as small as an apple and as large as a planet, are subject to gravity. Gravity helped keep the planets rotating around the sun and creates the ebbs and flows of rivers and tides. Newton’s law also states that larger bodies with heavier masses exert more gravitational pull, which is why those who walked on the much smaller moon experienced a sense of weightlessness, as it had a smaller gravitational pull.

To help explain his theories of gravity and motion, Newton helped create a new, specialized form of mathematics. Originally known as 𠇏luxions,” and now calculus, it charted the constantly changing and variable state of nature (like force and acceleration), in a way that existing algebra and geometry could not. Calculus may have been the bane of many a high school and college student, but it has proved invaluable to centuries of mathematicians, engineers and scientists. 


Facts about Isaac Newton’s childhood, education, and family

1. Sir Isaac Newton was born premature and had little to no chance of survival. It was a Christmas morning in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

2. He was born on 4 January 1643 [O.S. 25 December 1642], the same year, Galileo died.

3. His father, who was a farmer, died three months before Newton was born. He was raised by his grandmother after his mother remarried.

4. Newton hated his stepfather and threatened to burn his house down.

5. History tells that he was not a good student who would excel in studies. He had to work as a servant to pay his bills and he liked to keep a journal of his ideas and thoughts.

6. During his school-age years, he disliked poetry and literature and was fascinated by technology and mechanics. He developed sundials which were very accurate.

7. Newton had written in his college notebooks about himself, “Making pies on Sunday night… punching my sister… threatening my Father and Mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.”

8. Newton’s mother wanted him to be a farmer but Newton disliked farming.

9. Isaac Barrow, who is Cambridge’s first professor of mathematics, is the source of inspiration behind Newton’s work on Calculus.

10. Newton, reportedly could not understand mathematics from the books he bought for his studies. During 1665 and the following year, Cambridge where Newton got enrolled for studies, was closed due to Black Death Plague. During this time, Newton completed his much-accomplished work on properties of light, calculus, and motion of celestial bodies. And he obtained his Masters Degree from Cambridge after these laws were formulated by him.


Newton's righteous wrath and difficult personality

Taking Newton's deeply religious beliefs into account, perhaps the worst of the cardinal sins that the otherwise insular and private Newton was to commit in his lifetime was wrath. During his later career as the Master of the Royal Mint, according to Sam Kean's book The Disappearing Spoon: "A pious Christian, Newton prosecuted the wrongdoings he uncovered with the wrath of the Old Testament God, refusing pleas for clemency. He even had one notorious but slippery 'coiner,' William Chaloner. hanged and publicly disemboweled." Forbes claimed that a total of 28 counterfeiters were put to death under Newton's direction.

But though Newton's ruthlessness with criminals may be said to be the result of his own self-righteousness, he also displayed this aspect of his character in his personal life. Two instances of Newton's vindictive behavior have made it into the history books, and both concern the sullying of the reputations of rival scientists by whom the insecure Newton reportedly felt threatened. Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz have now been revealed to have been targets of the scientist's ire, and it is now commonly agreed that Newton went out of his way to discredit the discoveries and tarnish the reputations of both men, even in the years following their deaths.


The Faith Behind the Famous: Isaac Newton

Alexander Pope’s well-known epitaph epitomized Isaac Newton’s fame. Even in Newton’s lifetime, his contemporaries’ adulation verged on worship. Following his death in April 1727, Newton lay in state in Westminster Abbey for a week. At the funeral, his pall was borne by three earls, two dukes, and the Lord Chancellor. Voltaire observed, “He was buried like a king who had done well by his subjects.” No scientist before or since has been so revered and interred with such high honor.

Who was this man whose stature has dominated the scientific landscape for three centuries? Why did his achievements have such an impact on society? What role did Newton’s faith play in his life and work?

Newton’s Faith

For Newton the world of science was by no means the whole of life. He spent more time on theology than on science indeed, he wrote about 1.3 million words on biblical subjects. Yet this vast legacy lay hidden from public view for two centuries until the auction of his nonscientific writings in 1936.

Newton’s understanding of God came primarily from the Bible, which he studied for days and weeks at a time. He took special interest in miracles and prophecy, calculating dates of Old Testament books and analyzing their texts to discover their authorship. In a manuscript on rules for interpreting prophecy, Newton noted the similar goals of the scientist and the prophecy expositor: simplicity and unity. He condemned the “folly of interpreters who foretell times and things by prophecy,” since the purpose of prophecy was to demonstrate God’s providence in history when “after [prophecies] were fulfilled, they might be interpreted by events.”

A member of the Anglican church, Newton attended services and participated in special projects, such as paying for the distribution of Bibles among the poor, and serving on a commission to build fifty new churches in the London area. Yet Newton seldom made public pronouncements regarding his theology. He is remembered instead for his pioneering scientific achievements.

Birth and Childhood

In June 1642 England began to suffer its first civil war. The year also witnessed both the death of Galileo in Italy and the birth of Isaac Newton in England.

Newton’s life took place against the backdrop of three locations within one hundred miles of each other: Lincolnshire, Cambridge, and London. Newton’s parents were country folk who lived on a small farm in Woolsthorpe north of London. Hannah Newton’s husband died soon after their marriage, at age 36. On Christmas Day, 1642, friends came to assist the young widow with the birth of her son Isaac. The baby was very premature and given little hope of survival he was so small he could have been fitted into a quart pot.

When Isaac was 3, his mother—a strong, self-reliant woman—remarried and moved to a new home in the next village. The child stayed on at the isolated house, cared for by his grandmother, for the next eight years. Recent biographers have seen that separation from his mother, between the ages of 3 and 10, as influential in forming the suspicious, neurotic personality of the adult Newton.

In 1654, at the age of 12, Isaac entered the Old King’s School in Grantham, which had a good reputation for preparing students to enter Cambridge and Oxford. The boy reached the top of his class, became interested in chemistry, and continued building intricate mechanisms, including a windmill and a water clock. Instead of taking part in the rougher games at school, young Isaac became an avid reader. Early in life he developed a self-sufficiency and resourcefulness that served him well in later years of research.

After four years Isaac returned home to help his mother with the farm. Despite good intentions, he spent more time keeping a notebook of observations on nature than looking after the animals.

After two years of frustration his mother decided he should complete his course at Old King’s to prepare for the university.

Studies at Cambridge

In June 1661 Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge, a community of four hundred scholars and students that was his home for most of the next thirty-five years.

The official curriculum was devoted mainly to Aristotelian philosophy—logic, rhetoric, and ethics. It developed Newton’s formidable ability to demolish the arguments of anyone who crossed him. The prescribed course also included mathematics, Latin, and Greek.

Newton studied physics and optics under Dr. Isaac Barrow, an excellent mathematician and Greek scholar. He was the first to recognize his student’s genius, and he introduced him to telescopes and current theories of light. The slumbering giant of Newton’s intellect suddenly awoke.

Most important for Newton, however, was the unofficial curriculum, his own readings. He explored the new philosophical world of the seventeenth century, and then moved to prominent scientific works, mastering Kepler’s Optics and nearly everything written about light. Since that subject called for experimentation, grinding lenses and building ingenious apparatus, it was made to order for his mathematical mind and deft fingers. He observed the stars and made notes that later led to a new theory of light and color. During his last undergraduate year, investigating mathematics and dynamics, Newton made phenomenal speed toward the frontiers of knowledge in both fields. In short, he was essentially self-taught in a wide range of subjects.

Scientific Developments

In 1665 flea—bearing rats carried the dread bubonic plague into congested London, where a fifth of the population died that summer. As the plague spread, students and teachers at Cambridge were sent home. Newton, with his new bachelor’s degree, packed his notebooks for a return to Woolsthorpe.

During the next two years, his reading and thinking, experimenting and writing, laid the foundations for his epoch-making work in three major areas: mathematics, optics, and celestial dynamics. Having invented the binomial theorem, Newton devised a method of calculation that later developed into calculus. He also discovered that white light contains the whole spectrum of colors, and he formulated the inverse square law for orbiting heavenly bodies.

In short, during this period Newton became one of the leading mathematicians and scientists in Europe. How did he do it? Among other abilities was the unusual gift of holding in his mind a mental problem for hours, days, and weeks until he had solved it.

Alchemy and Achievement

Cambridge University reopened in the spring of 1667. Two years later, at the age of 26, Newton was appointed to the prestigious Lucasian chair of mathematics, a professorship he held for the next three decades. With minimal teaching responsibilities, he turned his attention to optics and constructed a reflecting telescope it caused a sensation when it reached London in 1671. Soon he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He read before the society his New Theory about Light and Colors.

During the next decade Newton’s public scientific career dwindled as he devoted most of his time to private studies of chemistry, alchemy, and theology. Alchemists had long pursued a method to transmute base metals into gold, and during thirty years in Cambridge Newton labored for thousands of hours with his furnace as he pored over alchemical books. He communicated virtually nothing about his private passion to others. The extent of Newton’s interest in alchemy, long an embarrassment to his admirers, became generally known only in 1936 when his alchemical writings of about 650,000 words became public.

In April 1686 Newton officially presented to the Royal Society his magnificent three-part Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Written in Latin and known as the Principia, it was comprehensible mainly to mathematicians. Here the scientist demonstrated his greatest discovery, the law of universal gravitation: Every particle in the universe is attracted to every other particle by a force proportional to a product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them F=(G m1 m2)/r2. Also presented were his three laws of motion. Among scientific writings, Newton’s Principia is unexcelled. It firmly established the new scientific approach to explaining natural forces and was soon taught at Cambridge. Nevertheless, Newton’s views were opposed on the Continent for several decades.

In 1693 the scientist suffered a nervous depression that lasted two years. It is likely that decades of overwork were taking their toll, possibly augmented by mercury poisoning from years of alchemy experiments.

Powerful Public Figure

During the last thirty years of Newton’s life the brilliant, retiring scholar became an influential public figure, attaining and ruthlessly wielding power.

In 1696 the king appointed Newton Warden of the Mint, and Newton took charge of the recoinage needed to stabilize a monetary crisis. He became an efficient administrator and shrewd political operator. He was responsible for prosecuting “coiners” who debased the silver coins by clipping their edges—an offense punishable by hanging. Newton took to the task with grim diligence. In 1699 he was appointed Master of the Mint. Two years later he resigned his professorship at Cambridge and moved to London where his niece Catherine Barton kept house for him.

In 1703 Newton was elected president of the Royal Society, which for two decades he ruled with an iron hand, taking offense at all who opposed his views. In 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne. Newtonian science gradually swept the field as Newton secured for his bright young disciples positions where they could teach and write the science textbooks. Over the years he engaged in two long, bitter feuds with other scientists, one with the German mathematician Leibniz over who invented the calculus.

His Scientific Legacy

Isaac Newton died on March 20, 1727, at the age of 85, after several years of enforced rest. His death was regarded as a national loss. A vast industry grew up dedicated to his memory—medals, poems, statues. (Submerged in the torrent of adulation were criticisms of internal contradictions in his writings, his atomistic theory of matter, and his mechanistic world-view.) Newton had became a national hero as well as the model scientist. While Copernicus and Kepler had died in obscurity, and Galileo under house arrest, Newton enjoyed success—largely because his discovery of one simple kind of attractive force (universal gravitation) could explain the motions of the planets, moon, and tides.

In the twentieth century, Einstein’s expanding universe and Heisenberg’s indeterminacy have undermined Newton’s clocklike model of nature. Nevertheless, mathematical physicist Stephen Hawking, a current Lucasian professor at Cambridge, writes that “Newton’s theory will never be outmoded. Designed to predict the motions of the heavenly bodies, it does its job with unbelievable accuracy . . . it remains in daily use to predict the orbits of moons and planets, comets and spacecraft. . . . Newton is a colossus without parallel in the history of science.”

Theology and Science

Newton’s historical learning, including a knowledge of Jewish customs, was extensive. He also mastered the writings of the church Fathers. (Newton’s interest in the doctrine of the Trinity led him to study the fourth-century conflict between Athanasius and Arius, who denied the status of Christ in the Godhead. Convinced that a massive fraud had perverted certain Scriptures, Newton adopted the Arian position.)

Despite his intense biblical study and belief in a creating God, Newton observed the distinction between religion and science made by Galileo: “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” During his presidency of the Royal Society, Newton banned any subject touching religion, even apologetics. He wrote, “We are not to introduce divine revelations into philosophy [science], nor philosophical [scientific] opinions into religion.”

Yet for Newton this distinction was not a divorce, much less a conflict. Although the books of God’s Word and his Works were not to provide the content of each other’s teachings, they were bound together. Newton did not consider one to be sacred and the other secular, nor did Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, or Pascal—all practicing Christians. Only later Enlightenment philosophy produced a model of “warfare” between science and theology.

Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing . . . all things according to his good will and pleasure.”

By Charles E. Hummel

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #30 in 1991]

Charles E. Hummel is author of The Galileo Connection and Genesis: God’s Creative Call (both InterVarsity).


Isaac Newton: life, discoveries, rivalries and the truth about the apple

Born a farm boy, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) emerged as one of the greatest minds of the 17th century, a polymath who discovered the laws of motion, described gravity, and later became a politician, president of the Royal Society and Master of the Mint. Writing for BBC History Revealed, science writer Jheni Osman explores the colourful life of a cantankerous scientist

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Published: June 17, 2020 at 10:30 am

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This became one of the most well-known quotes from the world of science, uttered over 300 years ago by the great mathematician and physicist. His supporters would say it showed him to be a humble man, attributing his great successes to his predecessors and contemporaries.

But those that knew the true nature of the power-hungry scientist thought otherwise, viewing the quote as a dig at one of his greatest rivals – physicist Robert Hooke – who was shorter than Newton and suffered from a stoop.

Born: 4 January 1643 (new style calendar 25 December 1642 old style) in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, England

Died: 13 March 1727 in Kensington, Middlesex, England

Remembered for: Best known for his discovery of gravity and an apocryphal encounter with an apple, Newton was a widely influential scientist who achievements also include advances in optics, calculus and celestial mechanics.

Isaac Newton’s early life

Cantankerous, ambitious, and prone to intense outbursts, he entered the world with his fists at the ready. Born prematurely in a sleepy hamlet in Lincolnshire, he was a tiny baby, who avoided the dreaded plague that was ravaging the country at the time. His father died three months after he was born, and he later felt spurned by his family, after he was packed off to live with his grandmother while his mother married a reverend from a nearby village – a man he came to loathe.

Battling through his teenage years, Newton’s salvation was his studies. While his mother hoped he’d take over the family farm, his genius in the classroom didn’t go unnoticed and a life of academia beckoned. At Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton found a new father figure.

Isaac Barrow was the first professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He immediately recognised the talent of his new prodigy and tasked him with solving one of the big unsolved problems of the day – calculus, the study of how things change. Without calculus, we wouldn’t have the tools to calculate everything from economic change right through to climate change.

What were Isaac Newton’s discoveries and achievements?

Over the years, Newton became a true polymath – jack of all trades, and master of many. He believed that discovery wasn’t just found by reading textbooks, but through individual observation and experimentation, and took his beliefs to the extreme – for example, he once stuck a blunt needle into his eye socket to see what the effect would be. Fortunately, his eye recovered.

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He wasn’t finished with the world of optics, though. During the particularly plague-infested year of 1665 when the University of Cambridge closed, Newton returned to his home village of Woolsthorpe, locking himself away in his laboratory in order to tinker around with telescopes. This isolated period of study proved fruitful, as he began to realise the design limitations of the traditional instruments, questioning why no-one had tried replacing the lenses with mirrors.

He found that this simple switch created a telescope that was ten times smaller than traditional ones and much more powerful.

Elated at his discovery, he approached the Royal Society – an elite group of scientists that met at Gresham College in London. They were impressed. So Newton plucked up the courage to share his theories on light and colour.

But Newton’s success was short-lived. Though he came up with the concept that white light is composed of a spectrum of colours, his muddled methodology confused fellow scientists who tried to replicate his results – without success. The feedback wasn’t good, and Newton didn’t take well to the criticism – particularly from Robert Hooke, who was to become one of his greatest rivals. Pride dented, Newton retreated back into isolation.

Devoid of distractions, unshackled from the constraints of university life, Newton explored numerous different areas of science, from alchemy (the medieval forerunner to chemistry) to astronomy. The reflecting device he invented to observe the distance between the Moon and stars was essentially the same as the subsequent Hadley’s quadrant – an important navigational instrument used in shipping – but only astronomer Edmond Halley recognised the genius of Newton’s ideas. Only after his death was a description of the device found among his papers.

During this time, Newton also crucially came up with what many consider to be the foundation of modern-day physics, publishing Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. Arch-rival Robert Hooke had published a book An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth from Observations in 1674, in which he wrote, “All bodies whatsoever that are put into a direct and simple motion, will continue to move forward in a straight line, till they are by some effectual power deflected.”

Over a decade later, Newton published Principia, which revealed his theories on calculus and universal gravitation, and his three laws of motion. But Newton’s first law of motion sounded suspiciously like Hooke’s theory. This was just one of the times Newton tried to outdo Hooke.

Newton and the apple

To most people, Newton’s name is synonymous with an apple falling on his head, which apparently helped him to come up with his innovative theory on gravity. The story goes that Newton was sitting under an apple tree in his garden back home in Woolsthorpe when an apple fell directly onto his head, causing him to have a light-bulb moment on how gravity works in space.

In reality, Newton was never on the receiving end of an apple – he probably just watched one fall to the ground as he was working. It does, however, make for a good tale. Newton certainly did come up with the theory, but in order to do this, he stood on the shoulders of a former giant.

In the late 16th century, the Italian polymath Galileo reputedly conducted a series of experiments from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to work out how different objects fall. He discovered that objects made from the same material but of different masses fall at the same speed.

Newton’s bright idea was to realise that this phenomenon also worked in space. Again, he stood on the shoulders of another giant by applying calculus to astronomer Johannes Kepler’s first law of planetary motion. From this he worked out that the force of gravity needed to lock the planets in their orbits around the Sun. So, Newton made a vital contribution to science when he realised that the whole universe is governed by the exact same law of gravity, whether it’s a falling apple or an orbiting planet.

But he wasn’t alone in his ground-breaking discoveries. In Europe at that time, the Scientific Revolution was well underway, Alongside Newton, other scientific greats such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler were instrumental in the emergence of modern science.

What and when was the Scientific Revolution?

From around the 15th to the end of the 17th centuries, developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry transformed society’s view of the world around us. No longer did people simply theorise how the world worked, but they used individual experience and scientific experimentation to gain actual knowledge.

Most historians claim this Scientific Revolution was kick-started by mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who came up with his heliocentric view that the Sun is at the centre of our Solar System, and not Earth. Elsewhere in Europe, scientists carried out various experiments and came up with ingenious inventions. Galileo Galilei worked out that objects of different mass fall at the same speed, and he improved the telescope, which led to his many astronomical discoveries – such as spotting mountains and valleys on the surface of the Moon, and discovering the four largest moons of the planet Jupiter.

And, by Newton’s time, when once people believed that the world was composed of four qualities (Empedocles’ earth, water, air and fire), scientists now recognised that it was made of atoms, or ‘corpuscles’ (small material bodies). This Scientific Revolution was truly an era of scientific enlightenment – perfectly summed up by the Royal Society’s motto: ‘Nullius in verba’, which basically means ‘take nobody’s word for it.

Newton the politician

But the ever-ambitious and confident Newton didn’t just limit himself to the world of science. Newton made many an enemy in the scientific world, but also in politics. He even took on James VII and II when he tried to Catholicise the University of Cambridge. He successfully fended off the King’s reforms, and entered the world of politics, becoming an MP in 1689. While his two years in office didn’t have a lasting effect on politics, Newton did make a huge impact on the economy.

Throughout the 17th century, Britain’s finances were in tatters. Up to one in every ten coins was forged, and the metal in them was often worth more than the value of the coin itself. In 1696, he became Warden of the Royal Mint, and set about recalling old currency, issuing new coins, and hunting down counterfeiters. His dogged determination to rid the country of fraud so impressed the powers that be that in 1699, he was appointed Master of the Mint for the remainder of his life.

Financial controller, political pundit, and genius scientist – an impressive CV and an amazing career considering he began life as a farm boy. But this wasn’t enough for Newton. He wanted to ensure his scientific legacy and secure his spot in the annals of science.

In 1703, Newton was elected as the President of the Royal Society. Taking advantage of his position, he set about trying to callously tarnish the reputations of some of his contemporaries. He tried to remove Robert Hooke from the history books, he antagonised John Flamsteed by publishing the astronomer’s catalogue of the stars without his permission, and he quarrelled with philosopher Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus. The feud between the two men only ended on Newton’s deathbed.

Newton died on 20 March 1727 at the age of 84. Though he never had children, he ensured that his legacy would never be forgotten by having his tombstone inscribed: “Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton”.

Newton and religion

During the Middle Ages, the Church was incredibly powerful, keeping the aristocracy under their thumb. In the 14th and 15th centuries, a group of so-called ‘humanists’ was formed in France and Italy – they were not opposed to the Church, merely intent on worshipping God away from the restraints of priests. This was the birth of a wave of newly enlightened thinkers.

By Newton’s time, religion was still a big part of life, but scientists were trying to understand how God fitted into the picture – alongside their research.

Despite being a scientific revolutionary, Newton was devoutly religious. Aside from his scientific works, he wrote numerous theological papers, which dealt with the literal translation of the Bible. He believed in a monotheistic God, and spent many hours trying to glean hidden messages from the Holy Bible. But his strong beliefs stemmed from his investigation of the natural world.

Whether his mind was truly able to align religion and science, no-one knows for sure. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his monument stands by the choir screen, near his tomb.


Isaac Newton

Introduction

Isaac Newton was one of the great figures in the history of science. His ideas about motion and gravity are very important to the science of physics.

Early Life

Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642 (January 4, 1643, according to the modern calendar), in Woolsthorpe, England. His father was a farmer. He died before Isaac was born. Isaac was raised by his grandmother.

In 1661 Newton enrolled at Cambridge University. There he became interested in new scientific ideas that were coming out of Europe. They included the idea that Earth and the other planets travel around the sun. This idea challenged the long-held belief that Earth was the center of the universe.

Scientific Work

After Newton graduated from college, he returned to his family’s farm. But he continued to study and do experiments on his own. His first great discovery came from his experiments with light. He found that when white light passes through a prism, or triangular piece of glass, it breaks up into a band of colors. Newton concluded that white light is a mixture of colors.

Newton also wanted to know what keeps the Moon in its orbit, or path, around Earth. He thought that only an attraction, or pull, between Earth and the Moon could explain it. This pull was called gravity. Newton’s work showed how gravity controls the motion of the planets around the sun as well as the motion of the Moon. As he studied gravity and motion, Newton also made important contributions to mathematics.

From 1669 to 1701 Newton was a professor at Cambridge. In 1703 he was elected president of a major scientific group called the Royal Society. In 1705 the queen of England made him a knight. Newton died in London, England, on March 20 (March 31 according to the modern calendar), 1727.


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