Sir Isaac Newton, (December 25, 1642 - March 20, 1727 by the Julian calendar
then in use; or January 4, 1643 - March 31, 1727 by the Gregorian calendar)
was an English alchemist, mathematician, scientist and philosopher; who published
the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), where he described
universal gravitation and, via his laws of motion, laid the groundwork for
classical mechanics. Newton also shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
for the development of differential calculus.
Newton was the first to demonstrate that natural laws govern earthly motion
and celestial motion. He is associated with the Scientific Revolution and
the advancement of heliocentrism. Newton is also credited with providing mathematical
substantiation for Kepler's laws of planetary motion. He would expand these
laws by arguing that orbits (such as those of comets) were not only elliptic;
but could also be hyperbolic and parabolic. In addition, Newton is credited
with being the first to demonstrate that white light is a composite, or mixture,
of the other colourss. He is also notable for his arguments that light was
composed of particles; see: wave-particle duality.
Following is a brief biography - for more in depth information see Isaac
Newton (in-depth biography).
Newton was born in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the county of
Lincolnshire. His father had died three months before Newton's birth, and
two years later his mother went to live with her new husband, leaving her
son in the care of his grandmother.
Newton was educated at Grantham Grammar School. In 1661 he joined Trinity
College, Cambridge, where his uncle William Ayscough had studied. At that
time the college's teachings were based on those of Aristotle, but Newton
preferred to read the more advanced ideas of modern philosophers such as Descartes,
Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler. In 1665 he discovered the binomial theorem
and began to develop a mathematical theory that would later become calculus.
Soon after Newton had collected his degree in 1665, the University closed
down as a precaution against the Great Plague. For the next two years Newton
worked at home on calculus, optics and gravitation.
Tradition has it that Newton was sitting under an apple tree when an apple
fell on his head, and this made him understand that earthly and celestial
gravitation are the same. This is an exaggeration of Newton's own tale about
sitting by the window of his home (Woolsthorpe Manor) and watching an apple
fall from a tree. However it is now generally considered that even this story
was invented by him in his later life, to try to show how clever he was at
drawing inspiration from everyday events. A contemporary writer, William Stukeley,
recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life a conversation with Newton
in Kensington on April 15 1726, in which Newton recalled "when formerly,
the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall
of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always
descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself. Why should
it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth's centre."
Newton became a fellow of Trinity College in 1667. In the same year he circulated
his findings in De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum Infinitas (On
Analysis by Infinite Series), and later in De methodis serierum et fluxionum
(On the Methods of Series and Fluxions), whose title gave the name to his
"method of fluxions".
Newton and Leibniz developed the theory of calculus independently and used
different notations. Although Newton had worked out his own method before
Leibniz, the latter's notation and "Differential Method" were superior, and
were generally adopted. Though Newton belongs among the brightest scientists
of his era, the last twenty-five years of his life were marred by a bitter
dispute with Leibniz, whom he accused of plagiarism.
He was elected Lucasian professor of mathematics in 1669. This position
exempted him from having to enter the church in order to remain a Fellow
of the college, and prevented the conflict that would have occurred between
his anti-Trinitarian views and the orthodoxy of the church.
From 1670 to 1672 he lectured on optics. During this period he investigated
the refraction of light, demonstrating that a prism could decompose white
light into a spectrum of colours, and then a lens and a second prism could
recompose the multicoloured spectrum into white light. From his work he concluded
that any refracting telescope would suffer from the dispersion of light into
colours, and invented the reflecting telescope to bypass that problem. (Later,
when glasses with a variety of refractive properties became available, achromatic
lenses became possible.) In 1671 the Royal Society asked for a demonstration
of his reflecting telescope. Their interest encouraged him to publish his
notes On Colour, which he later expanded into his Opticks. When Robert Hooke
criticised some of Newton's ideas, Newton was so offended that he withdrew
from public debate. Due to Newton's paranoia, the two men remained enemies
until Hooke's death.
Newton's committment to science (or something) is best demonstrated in one
particular optical experiment. Having the idea colour is infused by pressure
on the eye, he jambed a darning needle around the side of his eye until he
could poke at its backside, dispassionately noting "white, darke & coloured
circles" so long as he kept stirring with "ye bodkin." <Christianson is
not clear on what N concluded from this>
He once said, in a letter to Hooke dated 5 February 1676, "If I have seen
further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants" though this apparent
modesty was barbed; Hooke was a man of short stature.
Newton argued that light is composed of particles. Later physicists instead
favored a wave explanation of light because of certain experimental findings.
Today's quantum mechanics recognizes a "wave-particle duality" however photons
bear very little semblance to Newton's corpuscles (eg corpuscles refracted
by accelerating toward the denser medium).
In his Hypothesis of Light of 1675, Newton relied on the existence of the
ether to transmit forces between particles. Newton was in contact with Henry
More, the Cambridge Platonist who was born in Grantham, on alchemy, and now
his interest in the subject revived. 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." Newton's interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions
to science. Had he not believed in the occult idea of action at a distance,
across a vacuum, he may not have developed his theory of gravity. (See also
Isaac Newton's occult studies.)
In 1679, Newton returned to his work on gravitation and its effect on the
orbits of planets, with reference to Kepler's laws of motion, and consulting
with Hooke and Flamsteed on the subject. He published his results in De Motu
Corporum (1684). This contained the beginnings of the laws of motion that
would inform the Principia.
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (now known as the Principia)
was published in 1687 with encouragement and financial help from Edmond Halley.
In this work Newton stated the three universal laws of motion that were not
to be improved upon for the next three hundred years. He used the Latin word
gravitas (weight) for the force that would become known as gravity, and defined
the law of universal gravitation. In the same work he presented the first
analytical determination, based on Boyle's Law, of the speed of sound in air.
With the Principia, Newton became internationally recognised. He acquired
a circle of admirers, including the Swiss-born mathematician Nicolas Fatio
de Duillier, with whom he formed an intense relationship that lasted until
1693. The end of this friendship led Newton to a nervous breakdown.
In the 1690s Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the
literal interpretation of the Bible. Henry More's belief in the infinity
of the universe and rejection of Cartesian dualism may have influenced Newton's
religious ideas. A manuscript he sent to John Locke in which he disputed
the existence of the Trinity was never published. Later works - The Chronology
of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of
Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) - were published after his death.
He also devoted a great deal of time to alchemy; this was at a time when
there was no clear distinction between the science of chemistry and the pseudoscience
Newton was also a member of Parliament from 1689 to 1690 and in 1701, but
his only recorded comments were to complain about a cold draft in the chamber
and request that the window be closed.
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, somewhat treading on the toes of Master Lucas (and finagling
Edmond Halley into deputy comptroller of the temporary Chester branch). Newton
became master of the Mint upon Lucas' death in 1699. These appointments were
intended as sinecures, but Newton took them seriously, exercising his power
to reform the currency and punish clippers and counterfeiters. He retired
from his Cambridge duties in 1701.
In 1701 Newton anonymously published a law of thermodynamics now known as
"Newton's Law of Cooling" in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.
In 1703 Newton became President of the Royal Society 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 attempting
to steal his catalogue of observations.
Newton was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705.
Newton never married, nor had any recorded children. He died in London and
was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Alexander Pope wrote a famous poem about Sir Isaac Newton: "Nature and nature's
laws lay hid in night; God said Let Newton be! and all was light."