Short biography of Sir Isaac Newton

Important dates: Born Christmas Day, 1642, Woolsthorpe, England. Died, March 20, 1727, London. 

The Life of Newton

Early life

Isaac Newton had a difficult birth on the family farm, at Woolsthorpe near Grantham in Lincolnshire. His father, an illiterate farmer, had died only three months previously. When he was three his mother went to live with a wealthy rector in a nearby parish. For the next eight years he was brought up by his maternal grandmother. The deserted child dreamt of burning down his house with his mother and stepfather inside it. Later, in a written list of sins, he regrets entertaining this thought.

The sickly, lonely boy entertained himself by building toys. These included a windmill powered by a mouse treadmill, kites that glowed in the dark, and clocks. He was in danger of becoming a reclusive eccentric.  But, fortunately, he had a kind uncle who got him into Grantham Grammar School, which had a fine reputation. While there, he was encouraged by the headmaster, Henry Stokes, to concentrate on physics and mathematics, as well as the classics. He was especially impressed by the Elements of Euclid. 

Trinity College, Cambridge University

In 1661 Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge. His mother and second husband were wealthy, but he was poorly provided for. He became a sub-sizer, a poor scholar who waited on, and ate the left-overs of, other students and fellows. Also, Cambridge was not the academic powerhouse that it would later become. Newton needed to find better company, writing, "Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth." He also started experimenting with alchemy, and studied the Hermetic Tradition.

From physics, he adopted the then current philosophical stance that all natural phenomena can be explained by the motion of particles of matter. For instance, he believed that light was  a stream of corpuscles that could be diverted by a glass prism or similar dense, transparent media. But he used alchemy to describe chemical affinities through the Hermetic language of "attraction" and "repulsion". In his ultimate contribution to science, Newton combined these traditions in the concept of forces acting on particles of matter. The force of gravity is the classic example of an attractive force of this nature. 

He sought out all kinds of knowledge from the best thinkers. For example, he studied mathematics from Descartes, and chemistry from Robert Boyle. It was a pursuit of a Theory of Everything, backed by a belief in a God who made all things through a connected, rational process.

The plague years

In 1665 the plague drove Newton back to Woolsthorpe. He spent the next two years, unhindered by college trivia, thinking about science and performing experiments for up to twenty hours a day. These years laid the groundwork for his greatest contributions. 

In August, 1665 he went to Stourbridge country fair and bought a glass prism from a peddler. He performed experiments by allowing natural light to shine through the prism. Like many others before him, he observed the spectrum of colours. But he explained the observation using his theory that light was composed of tiny particles. 

He was not afraid to experiment with himself. One time, he pushed an ivory toothpick underneath his eyeball to the back of the socket. Doing this he observed several  white, dark and coloured circles. After this, he had to spend a few weeks in bed with the curtains drawn.

He developed "fluxions", a mathematical method that allowed him to describe mechanical motions. We now call it "the calculus". And then there was the apple tree, which is still standing at Grantham. The fall of an apple, supposedly, led Newton to his idea of attraction. Why did it fall? Because the Earth exerted a force on it. He then realised that all objects could be attracted to one another. But it would take twenty years before the Universal Law of Gravitation emerged in the Principia.

The return to Cambridge

Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667, and was elected a Fellow of Trinity College. For twenty years he pursued his investigations, but had vicious quarrels with anyone who challenged him. Friends turned into enemies, he refused to publish, and he finally had a terrible nervous breakdown. Although, he remained at Cambridge until 1696 he did less and less science.

At the age of twenty-seven he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. By 1680 he was convinced that his law of attraction explained planetary motion. He even quantified the force involved. In 1684 Edmund Halley tried to persuade Newton to publish his short tract 'On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit'. But Newton refused. Instead he expanded it into his major work, Philosphiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), or Principia for short

The Principia was published in 1687 and marks the beginning of the modern mathematical approach to science. It was 512 pages long, written in Latin, and consists mainly of complex mathematical arguments and equations. It is not an easy read, but it provided the definitive statement of Sir Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation.

Isaac Newton and the royal mint

Newton's growing fame led to him to positions of great social stature. For instance, he was elected Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge for brief periods in 1689 and 1701. But in 1696 he obtained a highly respected position at the Royal Mint in London,  becoming Master of the Mint 1699. He retained this office until his death and proved to be an able administrator. 

The Royal Society and the last decades

Newton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1671, became President in 1703, and was annually re-elected to this position for the rest of his life. His other major work, Opticks, appeared in 1704. He was knighted in 1705. Newton passed his last decades in Official duties, revisions of his major works, studying ancient history, and defending himself against critics.  Never married, he was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey. Voltaire witnessed the funeral and praised a country that honoured a mathematician as much as a monarch. A sentence, written by him at near end of his life, captures his curious, lonely spirit. "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now an then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all unknown before me."

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