Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton Leaves a Legacy
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is known as the first popular hero of modern science. The words "scientist" and "physics" did not exist during his lifetime.
The most enduring legacy of Sir Isaac Newton is his explanation of how the universe operates by logical mechanical laws. His most unusual gift was his unparalleled personal powers of concentration.
Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus, designed the reflecting telescope, and explained how the moon creates the earthly tides. From the time of Aristotle to the time of Einstein, Isaac Newton was the man.
Sir Isaac Newton Was Once Young
Sir Isaac Newton was born the year the English Civil War began, 1642, which is also the year Galileo died. Isaac Newton was unusually small and sickly as a baby. At birth, he could have fit into a quart mug. His father was an illiterate yeoman farmer, who died three months before Isaac was born.
Newton's mother cast him off when he was but three years old, as her new husband did not want the boy in their lives. Isaac was to grow up with his maternal grandmother in a lonely farmhouse.
In school, Isaac Newton was not an outstanding student early on; nor did he make any close friends. Later, he became the top student after being bullied by a classmate. At home, Isaac drew on the walls of his bedroom until they were covered with his drawings of sundials, circles, triangles, plants, birds, beasts, ships, and men. As a teenager, he could tell the time of day by the shadows he saw.
Of Light and the Universe
Of all natural phenomena, light was the most awesome. Light was used in romance, metaphor, and theology. It was a most unlikely thing to be confined to the discipline of numbers. Newton discovered that all colors were components of white; that light moves in particles; and that colors result from the variation in frequency of these light particles.
Isaac Newton retired to the country to wait out the plague of 1665, which had temporarily closed Cambridge. While there, Newton put together his laws of physics. His idea was that the motion of all things could be explained because God had given man a rational mind capable of understanding—gradually—the rational, orderly universe God had made.
Isaac Newton set about to describe the System of the Universe. He offered a common scheme for celestial and terrestrial dynamics. Newton brought the heavenly bodies down to earth where men could grasp them. All motions of earthly and heavenly bodies could be seen, observed, and measured.
About all this Newton stated: "God exists always and everywhere. We have ideas of His attributes, but what the real substance of anything is we know not. God can be known only from the appearances of things."
The Eccentric Newton
The Great Fire of London in 1666, forever destroyed the London of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth. It also killed the rats that had caused the plague. Newton became professor of mathematics at Cambridge at the age of 27.
Newton lectured to mostly empty classrooms at Cambridge, as most students were hardly interested in his ideas, and those who were found it difficult to comprehend his teaching. His secretary said, "Few went to hear him; fewer understood him."
Isaac Newton joined the Royal Society in 1672, where he was viewed as a solitary, untrusting, morose man. He did not laugh or engage in small talk.
Isaac Newton rarely changed his clothes, fastened his shoes, or combed his hair. To dine at an actual table was unheard of; he preferred to snack throughout the day. Sitting down for a meal took far too much time away from his work.
Isaac Newton hardly ever used his bed; he would take naps here and there, around the clock. Newton rarely left his room. He had no hobbies; he never partook in physical activity. His hair turned silver by age 30.
Newton Understood the Gravity of the Situation
In 1684, Newton explained to his fellow scientists how the planets moved in elliptical orbits. In 1687, he published Principia Mathematica, perhaps the most important science book ever written. In it, Newton explicated his three laws of motion—the most important being the second, which explains the power of gravity and how it determines the movement of heavenly bodies. Newton also explained that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.
Isaac Newton wrote that all bodies are subject to gravity—in proportion to their masses and the square of the distance between their centres—and that this ties the planetary system together. Johannes Kepler had already described the motion of the planets—Newton took it a step further with his explanation of why they move. And what keeps them in orbit.
The Universal Law of Gravitation: Every particle in the universe is attracted to every other particle.
Newton saw God as the master creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation. Isaac Newton wrote: "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."
As Newton became famous, he wanted to be left alone—but craved attention.
Everything He Touches Turns to Gold
Isaac Newton was elected a Member of Parliament in 1689. In 1693, he developed severe health problems that led to a nervous breakdown. His illness was likely caused by mercury poisoning from experiments he was conducting at the time.
Isaac Newton was named Warden of the Mint in 1696. It was meant to be a sinecure, but Newton immersed himself in the job and proved to be amazingly successful at it. He uncovered and convicted 28 counterfeiters. His work was so fabulous that in 1700 he became the first warden ever to be promoted to Master of the Mint.
Newton became the president—some say dictator—of the Royal Society in 1703 and served in this capacity until his death 25 years later. The last 30 years of his life he lived in London.
Queen Anne knighted Sir Isaac Newton in 1705, which made him the first scientist ever accorded this honor. Sir Isaac Newton famously said: "If I have seen further than most men, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
No Here One Gets out Alive
Sir Isaac Newton also loved alchemy—he produced 650,000 words on his thoughts about it. Newton, a deeply religious man, loved theology even more—he wrote 1,300,000 words about it. Notably, though he was a devout Christian, Newton rejected the Trinity.
Despite being a sickly child and never exercising as an adult, Newton lived a long life in good health. He looked startlingly young at 80 years old. His hair was white, but it was remarkably thick for a man his age. And he did not require glasses.
Newton died in his sleep and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His body was found to be infested with mercury.
On his burial monument these words appear:
"Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race!"
My primary sources for this article are: Isaac Newton, The Greatest Scientist of All Time by Margaret J. Anderson; and The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin; Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey