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Sir Isaac Newton
A brilliant mathematician and scientist, Newton developed the theory of gravity, differential calculus, and principles that resulted in the successful construction of the refracting telescope. His genius was recognized both by his peers and by his Queen, who conferred a knighthood upon him in 1705. In addition to his mathematical skills -- Newton solved many problems designed to thwart Europe's most accomplished mathematicians -- Newton was politically adroit, serving in parliament for Trinity College, Cambridge, and holding positions such as warden of the Mint and master of the Mint. Less well-known is that Newton was a keen student of alchemy and also produced manuscripts on Biblical subjects. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Sir Isaac Newton - History
Especially in the earlier part of his life, Newton was a deeply introverted character and fiercely protective of his privacy. Even in his maturity, having become rich, famous, laden with honours and internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s foremost thinkers, he remained deeply insecure, given to fits of depression and outbursts of violent temper, and implacable in pursuit of anyone by whom he felt threatened. The most famous example of this is his carefully-orchestrated campaign to destroy the reputation of Gottfried Leibniz, who he believed (quite unfairly) had stolen the discovery of calculus from him. Yet he was also capable of great generosity and kindness, and there is no lack of tributes to his affability and hospitality, at least in his later years.
His psychological problems culminated in what would now be called a nervous breakdown in mid-1693, when, after five nights of sleeping ‘not a wink’, he temporarily lost all grip on reality and became convinced that his friends Locke and Pepys were conspiring against him. He later confessed to Locke that during this crisis, ‘when one told me you were sickly . I answered twere better if you were dead’ (it is not clear whether Newton really did tell anyone this or merely imagined that he had). He seems, however, to have made a full recovery by the end of the year.
Many post-Freudian biographers (and not only fully paid-up Freudians) trace the roots of Newton’s insecurity and aggressiveness to his earliest years. His father died before he was born. When he was barely three years old, his mother remarried and moved into the home of her new husband Barnabas Smith, leaving the infant Isaac in the care of her own parents until Smith’s death some seven years later, when she came back, bringing with her two daughters and a son from her second marriage.
It should be said that such an arrangement was not particularly unusual in the mid-seventeenth century, but that does not in itself rule out the possibility - if not the likelihood - that this early experience of loss and betrayal permanently damaged Newton’s capacity for trust and close friendship. It has also been suggested - though this is purely conjectural and much disputed - that he was a repressed homosexual, which if true would undoubtedly have placed a man of his background and upbringing under extreme mental strain.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that Newton’s defensive secretiveness makes it extremely difficult to form a full and balanced assessment of his character. There are no private diaries, and hardly any of his correspondence touches on details of his private life or state of mind. Though we are lucky to have a substantial collection of second- and third-hand accounts of Newton’s early years (see the documents in Newton as Seen by Others), only a very few manuscripts in his own hand, dating from his boyhood and undergraduate years, give a more direct insight into his personal world.
By far the most important of these is the list Newton wrote out in 1662 of all the sins he could remember having committed, which he kept up-to-date for an uncertain but fairly short period thereafter (in the Fitzwilliam Notebook). Addressed directly to God, this gives a fascinating glimpse into Newton’s conscience. Perhaps the most striking feature of the list is how short it is and how innocuous most of the ’sins’ now seem. The misdemeanours Newton confessed are far less racy than those recorded in Samuel Pepys’s much more famous and substantial diary, but they obviously weighed heavily on him, and he adopted the same strategy as Pepys of writing in shorthand as a sort of code (though in both cases it is a relatively simple code to crack).
It says much about the sternly puritanical cast of Newton’s upbringing that many years after the event he still felt guilty about several minor instances of Sabbath-breaking, including ‘Squirting water on Thy day’ and ‘Making pies on Sunday night’. Other misdeeds seem, to modern secular ears, even more innocuous: ‘Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times’ ‘Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter’. Yet there are also hints of the rages and dark depressions that would continue to blight his adult life: ‘Striking many’ ‘Punching my sister’ ‘Wishing death and hoping it to some’.
Nothing else quite so revealingly personal as this survives, but much can be read between the lines of the other private notebooks Newton kept as a schoolboy and undergraduate.
In the Pierpont Morgan Notebook, begun probably in 1659 (two years before Newton went to Cambridge), there are numerous series of words arranged, under a number of subject headings, in quasi-alphabetical order. This was done, presumably, as a handwriting and/or vocabulary-building exercise, and for the most part the lists are copied verbatim from a popular text-book of the day, Francis Gregory’s Nomenclatura brevis anglo-Latino, but Newton makes some surprising and surely revealing additions of his own. The word ‘Father’, copied from Gregory, is followed by Newton’s own supplement ‘Fornicator, Flatterer’, while ‘Brother’, though it is indeed followed by ‘Bastard’ in Gregory’s list, sparked a whole volley of further abusive terms in Newton’s mind, including ‘Blasphemer’, ‘Brawler’, ‘Babler’, ‘Babylonian’, ‘Bishop’ and ending with ‘Benjamite’. A ‘Benjamite’ was an over-indulged youngest son (in reference to Genesis 42, in which Jacob shows his youngest son Benjamin preferential treatment over his brothers). It is surely significant that Newton’s younger half-brother was also called Benjamin.
The other most crucial evidence for an understanding of Newton’s development in adolescence and adulthood is supplied by the lists of expenses he kept from 1659-69 in the Fitzwilliam Notebook and another one now known as the Trinity Notebook. These soften the image of an unsmiling, self-absorbed, Puritan Newton by revealing that as an undergraduate he did get out once in a while, to the tavern and the bowling green, and even occasionally played cards (and lost). Perhaps still more surprisingly, he appears to have run an informal money-lending operation for fellow students at Cambridge, though whether he charged interest on his loans is unclear.
These notebooks also chart the development of Newton’s intellectual interests. His practical bent, which later enabled him to devise and conduct experiments unassisted and to build most of his scientific apparatus himself, is already evident in the Pierpont Morgan notebook, the early part of which is crammed with recipes for making paints and medicines and instructions for performing conjuring tricks. In 1669, the expense lists begin to fill up with purchases of (al)chemical materials, books and equipment to stock the private laboratory he set up in the grounds of Trinity College. His disillusion with the very conservative curriculum on offer at Cambridge is evidenced by another notebook (Add. Ms. 3996 in Cambridge University Library), which begins with a series of notes on Aristotle and other orthodox academic sources but then abruptly changes tack and engages actively with the latest theories in science and mathematics, particularly those of Descartes.
Newton’s intellectual activities as an undergraduate were almost entirely extra-curricular. His near-total disregard for the subjects he was ostensibly supposed to be studying - primarily the ethics and natural philosophy of Aristotle - actually led to his being regarded as a decidedly poor scholar until his genius was recognised by the mathematics professor Isaac Barrow. But as this notebook proves, he was in fact far more in touch with current developments in international scholarship than most of his tutors and professors.
Unfortunately, no such personal material survives - if it ever existed - from the later, more public phase of Newton’s career. But the insights these documents offer into his formative years, adolescence and early adulthood make them indispensable to any attempt to form a rounded picture of Newton the man.
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Did an apple really fall on Isaac Newton’s head?
Legend has it that a young Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when he was bonked on the head by a falling piece of fruit, a 17th-century 𠇊ha moment” that prompted him to suddenly come up with his law of gravity. In reality, things didn’t go down quite like that. Newton, the son of a farmer, was born in 1642 near Grantham, England, and entered Cambridge University in 1661. Four years later, following an outbreak of the bubonic plague, the school temporarily closed, forcing Newton to move back to his childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor. It was during this period at Woolsthorpe (Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667) that he was in the orchard there and witnessed an apple drop from a tree. There’s no evidence to suggest the fruit actually landed on his head, but Newton’s observation caused him to ponder why apples always fall straight to the ground (rather than sideways or upward) and helped inspired him to eventually develop his law of universal gravitation. In 1687, Newton first published this principle, which states that every body in the universe is attracted to every other body with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, in his landmark work the “Principia,” which also features his three laws of motion.
In 1726, Newton shared the apple anecdote with William Stukeley, who included it in a biography, “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life,” published in 1752. According to Stukeley, ter dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind…. occasion𠆝 by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.”
The esteemed mathematician and physicist died in 1727 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. His famous apple tree continues to grow at Woolsthorpe Manor.
This book recognizes that Renaissance ideas paved the way for the Scientific Revolution and identifies Sir Isaac Newton as a key figure in the development of science. It is a valuable source if used as an overview of the Revolution as it discusses developments in various scientific fields as well as societal changes brought about by empiricism. The chapters dedicated to Newton and his legacy (12 and 14, respectively) provide a comprehensive review of his achievements and their repercussions.
Kearney, Hugh F. Science and Change, 1500-1700. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
Kearney too recognizes the Renaissance as the precursor to the Scientific Revolution for its rediscovery of classical texts, namely the Aristotelian tradition, which reshaped people’s approach to problems as it emphasized empiricism. Again, Sir Isaac Newton is the only person with a chapter dedicated to him, cementing his importance to the revolution and to science. This book’s approach, however, is quite interesting as Kearney explicitly attempts to avoid a linear perspective on historical facts since he believes this practice oversimplifies the otherwise complex interplay of factors that lead to historical events.
Merriman, John M. “The New Philosophy of Science.” A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 287-311.
A great synopsis of the Scientific Revolution, this chapter approaches topics such as the changing views of the universe and the origin of the scientific method. It provides a clear understanding of the new scientific developments of the time and the cultural/societal changes that occurred during the period. It also provides a comprehensive section on the consequences of the revolution, which included “subjecting society, government, and political thought to similar scrutiny” as that applied to scientific questions (p. 311).
A short film that highlights the importance of the scientific method and how it affected the way people viewed the world. It attributes the introduction of the method to Sir Isaac Newton, although this claim is debatable. Via the method, people were able to procure truths by inductive reasoning, which led to our modern understanding of science.
Method of Fluents
Integration approximates the area under a curve as the size of the samples approaches zero
The “opposite” of differentiation is integration or integral calculus (or, in Newton’s terminology, the “method of fluents”), and together differentiation and integration are the two main operations of calculus. Newton’s Fundamental Theorem of Calculus states that differentiation and integration are inverse operations, so that, if a function is first integrated and then differentiated (or vice versa), the original function is retrieved.
The integral of a curve can be thought of as the formula for calculating the area bounded by the curve and the x axis between two defined boundaries. For example, on a graph of velocity against time, the area “under the curve” would represent the distance travelled. Essentially, integration is based on a limiting procedure which approximates the area of a curvilinear region by breaking it into infinitesimally thin vertical slabs or columns. In the same way as for differentiation, an integral function can be stated in general terms: the integral of any power f ( x ) = x r is x r +1 ⁄ r +1, and there are other integral functions for exponential and logarithmic functions, trigonometric functions, etc, so that the area under any continuous curve can be obtained between any two limits.
Newton chose not to publish his revolutionary mathematics straight away, worried about being ridiculed for his unconventional ideas, and contented himself with circulating his thoughts among friends. After all, he had many other interests such as philosophy, alchemy and his work at the Royal Mint. However, in 1684, the German Leibniz published his own independent version of the theory, whereas Newton published nothing on the subject until 1693. Although the Royal Society, after due deliberation, gave credit for the first discovery to Newton (and credit for the first publication to Leibniz), something of a scandal arose when it was made public that the Royal Society’s subsequent accusation of plagiarism against Leibniz was actually authored by none other Newton himself, causing an ongoing controversy which marred the careers of both men.
Facts about Newton’s work in physics, mathematics, fascination with nature, religious faith and more…
11. Newton worked on diffraction of light, universal gravitation, centrifugal force, centripetal force, and the effects and characteristics of bodies in motion.
12. Newton did not like criticism and made lifelong enemies with those who criticized him.
13. When Newton was being criticized by fellow scientists, he began a life of solitude and total isolation in 1679 and remained in this state for the next 6 years of his life.
14. Interestingly, Newton was very secretive during his entire career.
15. During this time, his mother was on her deathbed. And Newton started pondering upon the nature of life. These ideas regarding the nature of life are believed to be the inspiration of his theories of gravity, which are the most important equations still governing a lot of physical sciences.
16. In 1684, Newton was again startled by a fellow scientist and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. A mathematical paper published by Leibniz tried to solve the mystery of nature with the help of mathematical expressions. Newton responded with a statement that he had already done the same work almost 20 years before, and the German philosopher had copied and stolen his work.
17. A foundation of modern science: The Principia Mathematica was published by Newton in 1687. This book was the work of thinking for almost 20 years and it took two years for Newton to compile the book. This book contained the concept and theories of universal gravitation, the three laws of motion and his theory of calculus. This book fostered his reputation, and is a source of knowledge and inspiration to millions of scientists, today.
18. Newton suffered twice with a nervous breakdown. This happened when he suspected that his friends conspired against him.
19. There is no concrete evidence about the famous apple hitting Newton in his head, and inspiring him about his research on gravitation and the related theories.
20. Newton was a very religious man and also studied the book of nature very passionately out of his curiosity. He wanted to study these subjects to discover a single system of the world that would explain everything.
The Apple Myth
Between 1665 and 1667, Newton returned home from Trinity College to pursue his private study, as school was closed due to the Great Plague. Legend has it that, at this time, Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. According to this common myth, Newton was sitting under an apple tree when a fruit fell and hit him on the head, inspiring him to suddenly come up with the theory of gravity.
While there is no evidence that the apple actually hit Newton on the head, he did see an apple fall from a tree, leading him to wonder why it fell straight down and not at an angle. Consequently, he began exploring the theories of motion and gravity.
It was during this 18-month hiatus as a student that Newton conceived many of his most important insights—including the method of infinitesimal calculus, the foundations for his theory of light and color, and the laws of planetary motion—that eventually led to the publication of his physics book Principia and his theory of gravity.
Isaac Newton's life can be divided into three quite distinct periods. The first is his boyhood days from 1643 up to his appointment to a chair in 1669 . The second period from 1669 to 1687 was the highly productive period in which he was Lucasian professor at Cambridge. The third period ( nearly as long as the other two combined ) saw Newton as a highly paid government official in London with little further interest in mathematical research.
Isaac Newton was born in the manor house of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. Although by the calendar in use at the time of his birth he was born on Christmas Day 1642 , we give the date of 4 January 1643 in this biography which is the "corrected" Gregorian calendar date bringing it into line with our present calendar. ( The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in England until 1752 . ) Isaac Newton came from a family of farmers but never knew his father, also named Isaac Newton, who died in October 1642 , three months before his son was born. Although Isaac's father owned property and animals which made him quite a wealthy man, he was completely uneducated and could not sign his own name.
You can see a picture of Woolsthorpe Manor as it is now at THIS LINK.
Isaac's mother Hannah Ayscough remarried Barnabas Smith the minister of the church at North Witham, a nearby village, when Isaac was two years old. The young child was then left in the care of his grandmother Margery Ayscough at Woolsthorpe. Basically treated as an orphan, Isaac did not have a happy childhood. His grandfather James Ayscough was never mentioned by Isaac in later life and the fact that James left nothing to Isaac in his will, made when the boy was ten years old, suggests that there was no love lost between the two. There is no doubt that Isaac felt very bitter towards his mother and his step-father Barnabas Smith. When examining his sins at age nineteen, Isaac listed:-
Upon the death of his stepfather in 1653 , Newton lived in an extended family consisting of his mother, his grandmother, one half-brother, and two half-sisters. From shortly after this time Isaac began attending the Free Grammar School in Grantham. Although this was only five miles from his home, Isaac lodged with the Clark family at Grantham. However he seems to have shown little promise in academic work. His school reports described him as 'idle' and 'inattentive'. His mother, by now a lady of reasonable wealth and property, thought that her eldest son was the right person to manage her affairs and her estate. Isaac was taken away from school but soon showed that he had no talent, or interest, in managing an estate.
An uncle, William Ayscough, decided that Isaac should prepare for entering university and, having persuaded his mother that this was the right thing to do, Isaac was allowed to return to the Free Grammar School in Grantham in 1660 to complete his school education. This time he lodged with Stokes, who was the headmaster of the school, and it would appear that, despite suggestions that he had previously shown no academic promise, Isaac must have convinced some of those around him that he had academic promise. Some evidence points to Stokes also persuading Isaac's mother to let him enter university, so it is likely that Isaac had shown more promise in his first spell at the school than the school reports suggest. Another piece of evidence comes from Isaac's list of sins referred to above. He lists one of his sins as:-
which tells us that Isaac must have had a passion for learning.
We know nothing about what Isaac learnt in preparation for university, but Stokes was an able man and almost certainly gave Isaac private coaching and a good grounding. There is no evidence that he learnt any mathematics, but we cannot rule out Stokes introducing him to Euclid's Elements which he was well capable of teaching ( although there is evidence mentioned below that Newton did not read Euclid before 1663) . Anecdotes abound about a mechanical ability which Isaac displayed at the school and stories are told of his skill in making models of machines, in particular of clocks and windmills. However, when biographers seek information about famous people there is always a tendency for people to report what they think is expected of them, and these anecdotes may simply be made up later by those who felt that the most famous scientist in the world ought to have had these skills at school.
Newton entered his uncle's old College, Trinity College Cambridge, on 5 June 1661 . He was older than most of his fellow students but, despite the fact that his mother was financially well off, he entered as a sizar. A sizar at Cambridge was a student who received an allowance toward college expenses in exchange for acting as a servant to other students. There is certainly some ambiguity in his position as a sizar, for he seems to have associated with "better class" students rather than other sizars. Westfall ( see [ 23 ] or [ 24 ] ) has suggested that Newton may have had Humphrey Babington, a distant relative who was a Fellow of Trinity, as his patron. This reasonable explanation would fit well with what is known and mean that his mother did not subject him unnecessarily to hardship as some of his biographers claim.
Newton's aim at Cambridge was a law degree. Instruction at Cambridge was dominated by the philosophy of Aristotle but some freedom of study was allowed in the third year of the course. Newton studied the philosophy of Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes, and in particular Boyle. The mechanics of the Copernican astronomy of Galileo attracted him and he also studied Kepler's Optics. He recorded his thoughts in a book which he entitled Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae Ⓣ . It is a fascinating account of how Newton's ideas were already forming around 1664 . He headed the text with a Latin statement meaning "Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth" showing himself a free thinker from an early stage.
How Newton was introduced to the most advanced mathematical texts of his day is slightly less clear. According to de Moivre, Newton's interest in mathematics began in the autumn of 1663 when he bought an astrology book at a fair in Cambridge and found that he could not understand the mathematics in it. Attempting to read a trigonometry book, he found that he lacked knowledge of geometry and so decided to read Barrow's edition of Euclid's Elements. The first few results were so easy that he almost gave up but he:-
It would be easy to think that Newton's talent began to emerge on the arrival of Barrow to the Lucasian chair at Cambridge in 1663 when he became a Fellow at Trinity College. Certainly the date matches the beginnings of Newton's deep mathematical studies. However, it would appear that the 1663 date is merely a coincidence and that it was only some years later that Barrow recognised the mathematical genius among his students.
Despite some evidence that his progress had not been particularly good, Newton was elected a scholar on 28 April 1664 and received his bachelor's degree in April 1665 . It would appear that his scientific genius had still not emerged, but it did so suddenly when the plague closed the University in the summer of 1665 and he had to return to Lincolnshire. There, in a period of less than two years, while Newton was still under 25 years old, he began revolutionary advances in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy.
While Newton remained at home he laid the foundations for differential and integral calculus, several years before its independent discovery by Leibniz. The 'method of fluxions', as he termed it, was based on his crucial insight that the integration of a function is merely the inverse procedure to differentiating it. Taking differentiation as the basic operation, Newton produced simple analytical methods that unified many separate techniques previously developed to solve apparently unrelated problems such as finding areas, tangents, the lengths of curves and the maxima and minima of functions. Newton's De Methodis Serierum et Fluxionum Ⓣ was written in 1671 but Newton failed to get it published and it did not appear in print until John Colson produced an English translation in 1736 .
When the University of Cambridge reopened after the plague in 1667 , Newton put himself forward as a candidate for a fellowship. In October he was elected to a minor fellowship at Trinity College but, after being awarded his Master's Degree, he was elected to a major fellowship in July 1668 which allowed him to dine at the Fellows' Table. In July 1669 Barrow tried to ensure that Newton's mathematical achievements became known to the world. He sent Newton's text De Analysi to Collins in London writing:-
Newton's first work as Lucasian Professor was on optics and this was the topic of his first lecture course begun in January 1670 . He had reached the conclusion during the two plague years that white light is not a simple entity. Every scientist since Aristotle had believed that white light was a basic single entity, but the chromatic aberration in a telescope lens convinced Newton otherwise. When he passed a thin beam of sunlight through a glass prism Newton noted the spectrum of colours that was formed.
He argued that white light is really a mixture of many different types of rays which are refracted at slightly different angles, and that each different type of ray produces a different spectral colour. Newton was led by this reasoning to the erroneous conclusion that telescopes using refracting lenses would always suffer chromatic aberration. He therefore proposed and constructed a reflecting telescope.
In 1672 Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society after donating a reflecting telescope. Also in 1672 Newton published his first scientific paper on light and colour in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The paper was generally well received but Hooke and Huygens objected to Newton's attempt to prove, by experiment alone, that light consists of the motion of small particles rather than waves. The reception that his publication received did nothing to improve Newton's attitude to making his results known to the world. He was always pulled in two directions, there was something in his nature which wanted fame and recognition yet another side of him feared criticism and the easiest way to avoid being criticised was to publish nothing. Certainly one could say that his reaction to criticism was irrational, and certainly his aim to humiliate Hooke in public because of his opinions was abnormal. However, perhaps because of Newton's already high reputation, his corpuscular theory reigned until the wave theory was revived in the 19 th century.
- investigations of the colours of thin sheets
- 'Newton's rings' and
- diffraction of light.
Another argument, this time with the English Jesuits in Liège over his theory of colour, led to a violent exchange of letters, then in 1678 Newton appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. His mother died in the following year and he withdrew further into his shell, mixing as little as possible with people for a number of years.
Newton's greatest achievement was his work in physics and celestial mechanics, which culminated in the theory of universal gravitation. By 1666 Newton had early versions of his three laws of motion. He had also discovered the law giving the centrifugal force on a body moving uniformly in a circular path. However he did not have a correct understanding of the mechanics of circular motion.
Newton's novel idea of 1666 was to imagine that the Earth's gravity influenced the Moon, counter- balancing its centrifugal force. From his law of centrifugal force and Kepler's third law of planetary motion, Newton deduced the inverse-square law.
In 1679 Newton corresponded with Hooke who had written to Newton claiming:-
This discovery showed the physical significance of Kepler's second law.
In 1684 Halley, tired of Hooke's boasting [ M Nauenberg ] :-
Halley persuaded Newton to write a full treatment of his new physics and its application to astronomy. Over a year later (1687) Newton published the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica Ⓣ or Principia as it is always known.
The Principia is recognised as the greatest scientific book ever written. Newton analysed the motion of bodies in resisting and non-resisting media under the action of centripetal forces. The results were applied to orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendulums, and free-fall near the Earth. He further demonstrated that the planets were attracted toward the Sun by a force varying as the inverse square of the distance and generalised that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another.
Further generalisation led Newton to the law of universal gravitation:-
Newton explained a wide range of previously unrelated phenomena: the eccentric orbits of comets, the tides and their variations, the precession of the Earth's axis, and motion of the Moon as perturbed by the gravity of the Sun. This work made Newton an international leader in scientific research. The Continental scientists certainly did not accept the idea of action at a distance and continued to believe in Descartes' vortex theory where forces work through contact. However this did not stop the universal admiration for Newton's technical expertise.
James II became king of Great Britain on 6 February 1685 . He had become a convert to the Roman Catholic church in 1669 but when he came to the throne he had strong support from Anglicans as well as Catholics. However rebellions arose, which James put down but he began to distrust Protestants and began to appoint Roman Catholic officers to the army. He then went further, appointing only Catholics as judges and officers of state. Whenever a position at Oxford or Cambridge became vacant, the king appointed a Roman Catholic to fill it. Newton was a staunch Protestant and strongly opposed to what he saw as an attack on the University of Cambridge.
When the King tried to insist that a Benedictine monk be given a degree without taking any examinations or swearing the required oaths, Newton wrote to the Vice-Chancellor:-
The Vice-Chancellor took Newton's advice and was dismissed from his post. However Newton continued to argue the case strongly preparing documents to be used by the University in its defence. However William of Orange had been invited by many leaders to bring an army to England to defeat James. William landed in November 1688 and James, finding that Protestants had left his army, fled to France. The University of Cambridge elected Newton, now famous for his strong defence of the university, as one of their two members to the Convention Parliament on 15 January 1689 . This Parliament declared that James had abdicated and in February 1689 offered the crown to William and Mary. Newton was at the height of his standing - seen as a leader of the university and one of the most eminent mathematicians in the world. However, his election to Parliament may have been the event which let him see that there was a life in London which might appeal to him more than the academic world in Cambridge.
After suffering a second nervous breakdown in 1693 , Newton retired from research. The reasons for this breakdown have been discussed by his biographers and many theories have been proposed: chemical poisoning as a result of his alchemy experiments frustration with his researches the ending of a personal friendship with Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss-born mathematician resident in London and problems resulting from his religious beliefs. Newton himself blamed lack of sleep but this was almost certainly a symptom of the illness rather than the cause of it. There seems little reason to suppose that the illness was anything other than depression, a mental illness he must have suffered from throughout most of his life, perhaps made worse by some of the events we have just listed.
Newton decided to leave Cambridge to take up a government position in London becoming Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 and Master in 1699 . However, he did not resign his positions at Cambridge until 1701 . As Master of the Mint, adding the income from his estates, we see that Newton became a very rich man. For many people a position such as Master of the Mint would have been treated as simply a reward for their scientific achievements. Newton did not treat it as such and he made a strong contribution to the work of the Mint. He led it through the difficult period of recoinage and he was particularly active in measures to prevent counterfeiting of the coinage.
In 1703 he was elected president of the Royal Society and was re-elected each year until his death. He was knighted in 1705 by Queen Anne, the first scientist to be so honoured for his work. However the last portion of his life was not an easy one, dominated in many ways with the controversy with Leibniz over which of them had invented the calculus.
Given the rage that Newton had shown throughout his life when criticised, it is not surprising that he flew into an irrational temper directed against Leibniz. We have given details of this controversy in Leibniz's biography and refer the reader to that article for details. Perhaps all that is worth relating here is how Newton used his position as President of the Royal Society. In this capacity he appointed an "impartial" committee to decide whether he or Leibniz was the inventor of the calculus. He wrote the official report of the committee ( although of course it did not appear under his name ) which was published by the Royal Society, and he then wrote a review ( again anonymously ) which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
Isaac Newton: Who He Was, Why Apples Are Falling
Sir Isaac Newton was born especially tiny but grew into a massive intellect and still looms large, thanks to his findings on gravity, light, motion, mathematics, and more.
Isaac Newton Kneller Painting
Far more than just discovering the laws of gravity, Sir Isaac Newton was also responsible for working out many of the principles of visible light and the laws of motion, and contributing to calculus.
Photograph of Sir Godfrey Kneller painting by Science Source
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Legend has it that Isaac Newton formulated gravitational theory in 1665 or 1666 after watching an apple fall and asking why the apple fell straight down, rather than sideways or even upward.
"He showed that the force that makes the apple fall and that holds us on the ground is the same as the force that keeps the moon and planets in their orbits," said Martin Rees, a former president of Britain's Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of science, which was once headed by Newton himself.
"His theory of gravity wouldn't have got us global positioning satellites," said Jeremy Gray, a mathematical historian at the Milton Keynes, U.K.-based Open University. "But it was enough to develop space travel."
Isaac Newton, Underachiever?
Born two to three months prematurely on January 4, 1643, in a hamlet in Lincolnshire, England, Isaac Newton was a tiny baby who, according to his mother, could have fit inside a quart mug. A practical child, he enjoyed constructing models, including a tiny mill that actually ground flour&mdashpowered by a mouse running in a wheel.
Admitted to the University of Cambridge on 1661, Newton at first failed to shine as a student.
In 1665 the school temporarily closed because of a bubonic plague epidemic and Newton returned home to Lincolnshire for two years. It was then that the apple-falling brainstorm occurred, and he described his years on hiatus as "the prime of my age for invention."
Despite his apparent affinity for private study, Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 and served as a mathematics professor and in other capacities until 1696.
Isaac Newton: More than Master of Gravity
Decoding gravity was only part of Newton's contribution to mathematics and science. His other major mathematical preoccupation was calculus, and along with German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, Newton developed differentiation and integration&mdashtechniques that remain fundamental to mathematicians and scientists.
Meanwhile, his interest in optics led him to propose, correctly, that white light is actually the combination of light of all the colors of the rainbow. This, in turn, made plain the cause of chromatic aberration&mdashinaccurate color reproduction&mdashin the telescopes of the day.
To solve the problem, Newton designed a telescope that used mirrors rather than just glass lenses, which allowed the new apparatus to focus all the colors on a single point&mdashresulting in a crisper, more accurate image. To this day, reflecting telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, are mainstays of astronomy.
Following his apple insight, Newton developed the three laws of motion, which are, in his own words:
- Newton's Law of Inertia: Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.
- Newton's Law of Acceleration: Force is equal to the change in momentum (mV) per change in time. For a constant mass, force equals mass times acceleration [expressed in the famous equation F = ma].
- Newton's Law of Action and Reaction: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Newton published his findings in 1687 in a book called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) commonly known as the Principia.
"Newton's Principia made him famous&mdashfew people read it, and even fewer understood it, but everyone knew that it was a great work, rather like Einstein's Theory of Relativity over two hundred years later," writes mathematician Robert Wilson of the Open University in an article on a university website.
Isaac Newton's "Unattractive Personality"
Despite his wealth of discoveries, Isaac Newton wasn't well liked, particularly in old age, when he served as the head of Britain's Royal Mint, served in Parliament, and wrote on religion, among other things.
"As a personality, Newton was unattractive&mdashsolitary and reclusive when young, vain and vindictive in his later years, when he tyrannized the Royal Society and vigorously sabotaged his rivals," the Royal Society's Rees said.
Sir David Wallace, director of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, U.K., added, "He was a complex character, who also pursued alchemy"&mdashthe search for a method to turn base metals into gold&mdash"and, as Master of the Mint, showed no clemency towards coiners [counterfeiters] sentenced to death."
In 1727, at 84, Sir Isaac Newton died in his sleep and was buried with pomp and ceremony in Westminster Abbey in London.