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Sir Isaac Newton, (December 25, 1642 - March 20, 1727) 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 modern 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 colours. He is also notable for his
arguments that light was composed of particles; see: wave-particle duality.
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 he invented
this story 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.
Newton and Optics
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.
He once said, in a letter to Hooke dated 5 February 1676, "If I have seen
further it is by standing on the 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".
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
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 of alchemy.
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 became
master of the Mint in 1699. These appointments were intended as sinecures,
but Newton took them seriously, exercising his power to reform the currency
and punish 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
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.
Writings by Newton
* Method of Fluxions (1671)
* Opticks (1704)
* Arithmetica Universalis (1707)
Short Chronicle, The System of the World, Optical Lectures, Universal
Arithmetic, and De mundi systemate were published posthumously in 1728.