In this particular article, we will discuss the life and work of Sir Isaac Newton. You should know him from his laws of motion which basically influenced every area in physics. Or maybe you know him because he invented calculus. Or because he worked on optics. Or just because he was obsessed with the occult, kind of crazy and really anti-social.
For all of those facts and theories: we shall undercover them today.
Newton’s early years
Isaac Newton was born on 4th January 1643 in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, England, a village known for well, being the place Newton was born. When he was born (prematurely), the doctor who delivered him didn’t think he would survive his first week. Obviously he was wrong.
Newton’s father (also named Isaac) had died three months earlier. He had been a farmer, and left a comfortable amount of money to his wife (Hannah).
For the next three years, Hannah would raise her child alone, until a new husband came along. Barnabas (Newton’s new stepfather) and Hannah would have three sons. Although little Isaac didn’t go along with his father, he had quite a healthy relationship with his three half-brothers.
Isaac only entered school at the age of 12 at King’s School in Grantham, England. He showed little interest in his studies, and performed poorly on all subjects.
In 1629 Newton was removed from school, and so his mother (now a 2nd-time widow) tried to make a farmer out of him. Newton was disgusted by this idea, and happily came back to school when the master at King’s school asked his mother to sent him back. This time Newton became the top-ranked student in school, partially because he wanted to outperform his bullies academically. Because that just works fine.
In June 1661 Newton began studying at Trinity College at Cambridge University. Has his mother wasn’t able to pay his university alone, Newton worked outside his study hours, serving meals for his professors.
Newton came to Trinity College with the purpose of becoming the Minister of Church in England. However, in his 1st year, he abruptly changed his goals to areas closely related to physics. It’s unknown why he decided this.
In his classes Newton mostly learned Aristotle, whose ideas fascinated him, but he wished for more. He started studying the works of Galileo, Kepler and Descartes outside his classes. What a bad boy studying non-yet-accepted-theories.
Newton on fire
After his graduation in 1665, the University closed down due to the Bubonic Plague. During this time Newton had what he called his Annus mirabilis. He focused on his personal studies, such as calculus, lunar motion, and optics. During this time he asked some really important questions:
–Why do things (yes, like apples) fall down, but the moon doesn’t?
–How do planets stay on orbit?
Isaac was convinced math was the answer. This is what started his search for calculus. Later Newton wrote, “At this time I was in the prime of my age of invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than any time since“. He was also at the prime of his loneliness, having basically no friends when he got back to Trinity College in 1667.
Now finally back in college, Newton could do what he most loved: spend hours and hours alone with his thoughts. Many of his colleges thought he was just a lonely person, and certainly not a guy who was inventing calculus and using it to calculate planetary motion.
Over the coming years Newton would occupy a number of prestigious positions, which would originate a small drawback. As a fellow of Cambridge, Newton was supposed to become an ordained priest in the Anglican church. Unfortunately (as it’ll be explained later in the article) Newton had some opposition to the doctrine of the Anglican church, and so he never accepted this condition. However, when he was appointed as Lucasian professor of mathematics (one of the most prestigious positions in the mathematical world) his colleges pressed for his ordain ship without the requirements normally needed.
Newton candidates to the Royal Society of London in 1671, writing a letter on the nature of light. Although his ideas were controversial and not completely accepted, he was accepted in 1672 and soon became a respected member and scientist.
As I just said, his letter wasn’t well-received by all. Robert Hooke, the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, highly contested his ideas. In a period of four years, Hooke would write ten published objections to Newton’s ideas (all of which would later be refuted by Newton). Tired of the quarrel, Newton quit the organization 15 months later. Isaac would only return to the Society two years later.
Much later in 1703, Newton became President of the Royal Society and two years after he received a knighthood from Queen Anne.
In 1684, Newton and Edmond Halley, a new member of the Royal Society, got together to discuss the orbits of planets. Halley was so impressed with Newton’s ideas that he suggested him to present his work in written form to the Royal Society. And so Newton started working on his masterpiece: Principia Mathematica. During 18 months Newton closed himself at home and talked to nobody. He often neglected food, and he slept an average of 3 hours a day. Here Newton would define inertia, matter, mass and momentum, definitions which we still use today. He also laid out his 3 Laws of Motion (which we’ll explore in-depth in future articles).
Some weird ideas
Newton wasn’t only interested in “science” however. When he first arrived on Cambridge, Newton was introduced to alchemy (the pseudo-science which believes everything is composed of 4 elements, and so you can transform any element in another one by adjusting the proportions of the components. We talked about it in past articles). He would write thousands of words on it and conducted hundreds of experiments.
Why did Isaac believe in such a irrational “science”? Probably because of the beauty of it. Newton wished to understand the world around him, and if alchemy was right he could describe everything by understand four elements. How beautiful wold that be?
On even weirder matters, theology. On yes, over his lifetime Newton wrote more than a million words on the subject. One of his weirdest ideas came from the Solomon’s temple. He was obsessed with this temple, and believed that the architecture of the temple could undercover the mysteries of the Universe and revealed the future Bible prophecies. He gave predictions about the end of the Catholic Church, the Return of Christ and the Day of Judgement (he believed it would be on 2060 by the way).
His later years
Already in his seventies Newton started having breathing problems, which would make him move from London to Kensigton, where the air was fresher. In 1725 however he got worse, and he was confined to bed for the next two years.
In 1727 Newton seemed to have recovered, so much he felt good enough to preside over the Royal Society meeting on February 28th. This was too much for him however, and when he got home he was again confined to bed. In March 31st, with 82 years, Isaac Newton passed away.
In this final years he wrote “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself and now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary while the great ocean of truth lays undiscovered before me“.