The Life of Sir Isaac Newton
The Father of Physics
Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist, astronomer and natural philosopher. He is considered to be one of the foremost figures in the history of science.
Isaac Newton was born on January 4th, 1643 in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, in the county of Lincolnshire. At the time of his birth, England had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar. Consequently, Newton’s birthday in the Gregorian calendar is December 25th, 1642. Newton was born three months after the death of his father, a prosperous farmer. Newton was born premature and his mother, Hannah Ayscough, wrote that he fit into a quart mug when he was born. At the age of three, Newton was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, after his mother remarried, this time to a minister named Barnabus Smith. Newton seems to have disliked his step-father, and resented his mother for remarrying as evidenced by a list of sins written when Newton was 19, “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.”
Isaac Newton’s Education
From the age of 12 to 17, Newton was educated at The King’s School in Grantham. In 1659, he left the school and returned home where his mother tried to make him a farmer. Newton, however, hated farming and eventually returned to The King’s School, where he became an excellent student.
In 1661, Newton was admitted to Cambridge University’s Trinity College. At the time, the College’s curriculum was based mainly on the writings of Aristotle. Newton, however, preferred to study more modern thinkers, such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. In 1665, Newton developed the Generalized Binomial Theorem, and began to develop the mathematical theory that would become known as Infinitesimal Calculus. Newton graduated in 1665. He returned in 1667, as a Fellow of Trinity College.
Newton later became involved in a dispute with the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz over who developed Infinitesimal Calculus first. Modern historians and mathematicians believe that Newton and Leibniz actually developed Infinitesimal Calculus at the same time, but with different notations. It is sometimes suggested that Newton published almost nothing of his work in this area until 1693, and did not publish a full account of his work until 1704. Leibniz, on the other hand, published all of his Calculus research in 1684. Such allegations, however, fail to notice the fact that Newton’s most important work, the Principia Mathematica, was outlined in the form of a nine page treatise called On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit in 1684.
Around the same time, Newton also lectured on optics. He investigated the refraction of light and demonstrated that with a prism he could decompose white light into the spectrum of colours. With a lens and a second prism, Newton was able to recompose the colour spectrum back into white light.
As a result of this research, Newton concluded that the lenses in a refracting telescope suffered from the dispersion of the light into colours. To prove this idea, he constructed a telescope containing a mirror in order to by pass this problem. Newton demonstrated his reflecting telescope to members of the Royal Society in 1671. Their interest encouraged Newton to publish a treatise called On Colour, which would later serve as the outline for his book, Opticks. When the English polymath Robert Hooke criticized some of Newton’s ideas, Newton was deeply offended and withdrew from public debate. Newton and Hooke corresponded briefly during 1679 and 1680, after Hooke was appointed manager of the Royal Society’s correspondence. As a result of this, Newton sought to prove that elliptical orbits resulted from centripetal forces that were inversely proportional to the square of the radius of the vector, as described by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation.
In 1679, Newton returned to his work with mechanics, specifically the study of gravity and its effects on planetary orbits. Newton also renewed his interest in astronomy, which was further stimulated by the appearance of a comet in the winter of 1680 and 1681. This, combined with his exchange with Hooke, led Newton to write his most famous book, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, more commonly known as the Principia. Newton’s book dealt mainly with the physics of large bodies in motion. He attempted to cover a number of hypothetical and possible scenarios involving planets and terrestrial projectiles. Newton also explored the motion of planets perturbed by multiple attractive sources, along with the visual interpretation of planetary movements.
The Principia Mathematica was published on July 5, 1687, thanks to the encouragement and financial support of Edmond Halley. The seminal nature of Newton’s book was such that Newtonian Physics would not be improved upon until the end of the 19th Century.
Sir Isaac Newton died on March 31, 1727. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
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Cohen, I. B. (1980). The Newtonian Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Christianson, Gale E. (1996). Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution. Oxford University Press