Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was born on Dec. 25, 1642, in Woolsthorpe, England. His father died before he was born, and when he was only three his mother, Hannah Newton, remarried and moved away, leaving him to be raised by an uncle. He was sent to the local grammar school, and for a time it was expected that he would grow up to manage his mother’s property. But he nonetheless persisted in the pursuit of his wider interests, and after leaving the grammar school he enrolled at Trinity College, at the University of Cambridge, in 1661. He received his bachelor of arts in 1665, and was named a fellow of the College two years later.

Meanwhile, in the turbulent year of 1666, while England fought with Holland and suffered plague and a terrible fire in London, Newton made three of his greatest discoveries. In the field of optics, the study of light, he developed and proved his theory that white light is composed of a mixture of other colors of light, which, when split apart by a prism, form a band of color called a spectrum. This was a revolutionary advance, and equally revolutionary was his work in mathematics, where he developed a binomial theorem and worked out a method of calculating the slope of curves and the area under them, paving the way for the field of math known as calculus. But his most important innovation was the concept of gravity, the attraction between bodies in space that holds planets, moons and comets in orbit, and draws falling objects toward the earth. His theory of gravity, however, remained incomplete and unverifiable; it would not be published for two decades.

In 1669, Newton was appointed professor of mathematics at Trinity College. In January 1672, he was elected to the Royal Society, a loose organizations of scientists and intellectuals. Shortly thereafter, he presented a paper detailing his discoveries in optics, and developed a rivalry with the scientist Robert Hooke, who harshly criticized Newton’s research. This rivalry would percolate throughout the 1670s, as Newton continued to work out the mathematics of gravity, and would flare up in the mid 1680s, when Newton finally published his work, some of which Hooke felt had been stolen from him. Newton’s research was organized into a three-volume book, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), known to posterity as the Principia. It set forth Newton’s three laws of motion, and proceeded to set forth the theory of gravitation, and back it up with rigorous mathematical proofs. Although the theory had many detractors at first, the scientific community would ultimately embrace it, and the Newtonian world-view would dominate physics until the 20th century.

Principia made Newton an English celebrity. He was elected to Parliament in 1691, and after surviving a nervous breakdown in 1693, was appointed warden of the mint in 1696, and master of the mint three years later. He was elected president of the Royal Society in 1703, upon the death of Hooke, and was knighted in 1705. As his fame grew, he worked to buttress his own reputation, bringing the Society under his tight control and carrying on a feud with the German mathematician Leibniz over the issue of who had developed calculus first. Newton never married, and was tremendously pious: he dedicated his later years to the interpretation of scripture, and a mighty effort to understand the relationship between biblical prophecy and history. He died on March 20, 1727, and was buried with great honors in Westminster Abbey.


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