Isaac NewtonFirst they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win. - Mohandas Gandhi.
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Isaac Newton Biography

"If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants."
- Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton made enormous contributions to science in several different fields.

Certainly one of the greatest scientists in history, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had a profound impact on physics, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and philosophy. The year Sir Isaac Newton was born was the same year Galileo died. In Woolsthorp in Lincolnshire, England, Hannah Newton gave birth to a premature baby boy on Christmas day. Named after his late father, Isaac, who died just three months shy of his son’s birth, the undersized infant was small enough to fit “into a quart pot” and was not expected to live. When Isaac was three, his mother remarried an elderly wealthy clergyman and Isaac was sent to live with his grandparents. His mother had three more children with her second husband. After eight years the clergyman died, which brought his mother and half-siblings back to Isaac.

At the age of thirteen, young Isaac left to attend Grammar School in Grantham, where he lodged with the local apothecary and was fascinated by chemicals. His mother insisted that when he turned seventeen he would return home to look after the farm. Unfortunately, Isaac made a terrible farmer. An uncle recognized his scholarly talents and persuaded his mother to let him attend university. In 1661, he went to Trinity College in Cambridge.

During his first three years at Cambridge, Isaac was able to pay his tuition by waiting tables and cleaning rooms for faculty and wealthier students. The following year, he received the honor of being elected scholar, guaranteeing him four years of financial support. Unfortunately, at that time the plague was spreading across Europe and caused the university to close in the summer of 1665. Newton returned home, where he spent the next two years in self-study, concentrating on astronomy, mathematics and physics.

Isaac Newton made a series of original contributions to science in the two years that he was back in Woolsthorpe. He later recalled, “All this was in the two plaque years of 1665 and 1666, for in those days I was in my prime age for inventions, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since.” At that time Newton discovered the law of universal gravitation, began to develop a new branch of mathematics (calculus), and discovered that white light is composed of all the colors of the spectrum (see below). These findings enabled him to make fundamental contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and theoretical and experimental physics and eventually led to the publication of his Principia (1687).

 

Sir Isaac Newton and the Apple

Sir Isaac Newton made enormous contributions to science in several different fields.

Legend has it, that while Newton was sitting in his garden in Woolsthorpe in 1666, an apple fell from the tree, producing his theory of universal gravitation. Cartoons have gone further to suggest the apple actually hit Newton on the head, and that its impact somehow made him aware of the force of gravity. There is no basis to that interpretation, although the story of the apple may have something to do with it.

On returning to Cambridge in 1667, where he spent the next 29 years, Newton published many of his famous works, beginning with the treatise, “De Analysi,” dealing with infinite series. Newton’s friend and mentor Isaac Barrow communicated these discoveries to the mathematics community. Shortly afterwards, Barrow resigned his Lucasian Professorship (established only four years previously, with Barrow the first incumbent) at Cambridge so that Newton could have the chair, he was only 27.

 

Isaac Newton Invention of the Reflecting Telescope and The Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton, who invented the color wheel's basic colors, was the first to argue that white light is actually composed of many different colors. An invention he created to study this phenomenon was a small and powerful reflecting telescope. This allowed him to separate white light into a spectrum of different colors of red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, and blue. He then took the two ends of the color spectrum and joined them together, showing the natural progression of the colors. This was the invention of the first color wheel. Interestingly, Isaac Newton also associated each color with a note of the musical scale. (See this page for interesting charts associating the colors with musical notes.)

Upon showing it to the Royal Society he was instantly made a member of the organization. The Society was a community of scholars brought together for the purpose of “Improving Natural Knowledge.” Among its members were poets and architects as well as scientists and mathematicians. Newton took this opportunity to talk about his new theories of light. This started a dispute with Robert Hooke over who had actually discovered the ideas first, a dispute which ended only with Hooke’s death in 1703.

Joke

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Isaac Newton 1:
Chickens at rest tend to stay at rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross the road.

Isaac Newton 2:
It was pushed on the road.

Isaac Newton 3:
It was pushed on the road by another chicken, which went away from the road.

Isaac Newton 4:
It was attracted to a chicken on the other side of the road.

Unfortunately, Newton quarreled with several of the leading scientists of the time and was reluctant to publish his experiments and philosophies until it appeared someone else might get credit for what he had found earlier. It was only under the pleas of astronomer Edmund Halley (the namesake of Halley’s Comet) that Newton was persuaded to publish his ideas on astronomy and physics, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (1687), now known as the Principia.

Newton's Laws of Motion

In this work he first laid out the three universal laws of motion, Isaac Newton Laws, that would not to be improved upon for more than two hundred years. With the Principia, Newton became the most famous scientist in Europe and changed our view of the universe forever. Newton’s famous three laws of motion are as follows:

Newton's First Law of Motion

An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by a net external force. This law is also referred to as the law of inertia.

Newton's Second Law of Motion

The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma. The acceleration of an object is directly proportional to the net force exerted and inversely proportional to the object’s mass.

Newton's Third Law of Motion

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Even today, these three laws are the basic adage on which physics rests and the first principles that every high school physics student learns.

The Principia fell upon European scholars like a bombshell. The first edition, written and published in Latin, sold out quickly, and a second edition was not issued for another 10 years, making copies rare and much sought-after. Although the scientific community quickly acknowledged the importance of what Newton had done, wide acceptance of his arguments did not come immediately. Critics questioned how gravity worked and whether his explanation left room for divine intervention. He was accused of promoting deism and even atheism.

Thus, Newton decided to publish a second edition, in 1713, in which he attempted to placate his critics. He admitted that he did not know what enabled gravitational pull and that he never claimed to understand the nature of gravity, but only the mathematical laws that governed its operation. Meanwhile, for the devout, he appended a section on the role of God to the second edition, in which he insisted that “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” God himself was beyond human understanding: “as a blind man has no idea of colors,” Newton wrote, “so we have no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things.”

Shortly after the complete publication of Principia, Newton reached the peak of his scientific career; he was prepared to take a new direction in life. In 1689, he was elected to represent Cambridge in Parliament. Here is a modified transcript of the only speech he gave in his years in parliament:

He stood.

The entire house fell silent.

The infamous scientist was about to speak.

He opened his mouth.

Everyone opened theirs in anticipation.

"Excuse me, you lot, but would someone mind closing the window? There’s a bit of a draft this side and my wig may fall off."

He sat down.

There is no record of what the general response was, or if anyone, in fact, closed the window.

In 1693, at the age of 50, Newton began a period of instability, suffering from insomnia and depression. He was never quite the same, though he was still a brilliant mathematician.

In 1696, fully recovered from his nervous breakdown, or “Black Years,” Newton finally achieved the governmental position he had so passionately desired, he was appointed Master of the Royal Mint (the agency responsible for coining money in England), a position he would hold for the remaining twenty-eight years of his life.

Meanwhile, with Hooke’s death (1703), Newton was finally elected to the presidency of the Royal Society and was annually reelected until his death.

In 1704, he published his second major work, the Opticks, based on the results of his earlier studies on light.

Queen Anne knighted him in 1705, making him the first scientist to be knighted for his work and granting him the aristocratic rank he had always desired.

Another dispute began in 1709, this time with German mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz, over who had invented calculus. While it may never have been settle to the satisfaction of either man, it lasted until around 1716.

By the end of his life, Newton was one of the most famous men in England. He had become wealthy, investing his substantial income wisely, and even contributed gifts to charities, all while leaving behind a small fortune in his will. Whether or not he was happy is another question. Newton never made friends easily and never married. He lived as the “monk of science.” His only close relationship with women was with his niece and mother. Around 1700 he had briefly courted a wealthy widow, but nothing ever came of it.

Isaac Newton died at the ripe old age of 85 (a substantial life in those days) and was buried in Westminster Abbey; his funeral was attended by all of England’s eminent figures, and his coffin was carried by nobleman. It was a funeral fit for a king. The great English poet, Alexander Pope, composed an epitaph for Newton:

 

"Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night
God said, "Let Newton be!"  and all was light."

 

Isaac Newton and Religion

"God is known from His works."   -   Sir Isaac Newton

Science and mathematics were not Newton’s only passion in life; he was a strong believer in God and devoted much time to studying scriptures. In his lifetime, Newton wrote more on religion than he did on natural science. The traumatic events in her early childhood prompted him to write a list of childhood sins during his first year a Cambridge.

 

Some of Isaac Newton's Confessed Childhood Sins:

Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them

Neglecting to pray

Falling out with the servants

Calling Dorothy Rose a jade

Punching my sister

Peevishness with my mother

Making a mousetrap on a Sunday morning

Swimming in a kimnel [tub] on Thy day

Eating an apple in church

Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar

Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandfather although I knew of it

Having unclean thoughts

Refusing to go to the close [field on the farm] on my mother's command

Peevishness over a piece of bread and butter at Mr. Clark's

Stealing cherry cobs from Edward Storer

Beating Arthur Storer

 

Interesting Facts about Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

As a young boy, he showed little promise in school work. Actually, his school reports described him as "idle" and "inattentive."

He never married and lived modestly.

He suffered from depression throughout most of his life.

Was a Member of Parliament.

Owned more books on humanistic learning and religion than on mathematics and science.

In addition to science, Newton devoted much of his time to alchemy, mysticism, and theology.

French writer, Voltaire, first recorded the story that a falling apple gave Newton the inspiration for this theory of gravitation. Voltaire cited Newton’s niece as his source for the story.

Was a wealthy man.

Served as the Warden of the Royal Mint.

He was always reluctant to publish anything, unless it appeared someone else might get credit for what he had discovered earlier.

Read more about Sir Isaac Newton.


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