Isaac Newton, possibly one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all time, led a long and important life. Newton was an English scientist, astronomer, and mathematician who made significant contributions in many fields of scientific and mathematical reasoning. Newton also made important contributions to physics and astronomy. Throughout his life, Newton discovered and published many of his theories, inventions, and ideas. He devised three major laws of motion, along with the theory of gravitation, which explains how the universe is held together. He also uncovered the mystery and secrets of light and color. In the mathematical field, Newton made a significant contribution; he invented calculus. Newton’s discoveries of the universe, light and color, and calculus were all made within 18 months of each other, spanning from 1665 to 1667. Newton is sometimes described as “one of the greatest names in the history of human thought” (Jacob 388).
Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642, in the manor house of Woolsthorpe, which is located near Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. Isaac Newton was born a premature infant, about an hour or two after midnight at the time of a full moon and was not expected to live. He came from a family of modest yeoman farmers (Schuster 173). His father (of the same name) had died just three months before. His mother, Hannah Ayscough Newton, remarried when he was three, and left him with his grandmother until her second husband died, in 1653, when Newton was 11. He was educated at King’s School, Grantham. As a boy, he was more interested in making mechanical devices than in studying. Some of “young Newton’s” inventions included a small windmill that could grind wheat and corn, a water clock run by the force of dropping water, and a sundial. He left school at the age of 14 to help his widowed mother with the family farm (Jacob 390). It was assumed he would continue in the farming tradition of his family, but finally his mother became convinced that he should be prepared for entry to university, and in 1661 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a poor scholar who would have to earn his keep by doing menial tasks for the Fellows (North 9).
Newton showed no particular promise in his early years at Cambridge, but Isaac Barrow, who held the Lucasian chair of mathematics, gave him much encouragement. Newton took his degree without distinction (in 1665), and would have prepared for his MA, but in 1664 the Great Plague broke out in London, and the university was closed down the following year (North 10).
At home during the plague years, he studied the nature of light and the construction of telescopes. By a variety of experiments upon sunlight refracted through a prism, he concluded that rays of light, which differ in color, differ also in refrangibility – a discovery which suggested that the indistinctness of the image formed by the object-glass of telescopes was due to the different-colored rays of light being brought to a focus at different distances (Schuster 173). He concluded (rightly for an object-glass consisting of a single lens) that it was impossible to produce a distinct image, and was thus led to the construction of reflecting telescopes, perfected by William Herschel and the Earl of Rosse (North 21). At the same time, he was working out his ideas on planetary motion.
On his return to Cambridge (1667), Newton became a Fellow of Trinity College, and, in 1668, took his MA. In the following year, Isaac Barrow resigned his chair in favor of his young pupil. Newton’s lecture series resulted in an essay which later formed Book 1 of Opticks (1704).
Newton laid the foundation for the science of spectrum analysis. He studied and explained why bodies appear to be colored. His studies of light and color had major implications in astronomy as they allowed for the determination of chemical composition, temperature, and speed of distant stars. Newton also made observations of sunlight and how it is a mixture of all colors. The study of light led to the construction of his first reflecting telescope (Jacob 389).
During the plague years, Newton developed differential and integral calculus, several years before its independent discovery by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (Schuster 173). Newton developed many techniques and methods for calculus and general mathematics. Even though Newton could not fully explain and justify his methods, he is accredited with the development of powerful techniques of problem solving and analysis in mathematics and physics. Isaac Barrow, a Fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the university, was so impressed by Newton’s achievements that when he resigned his chair in 1669 to devote himself to theology, he recommended that the 27-year-old Newton take his place (Schuster 173).
Newton made great advancements in the scientific realm. His theories of motion and gravity are still looked upon with the highest degree of admiration and are still used in today’s learning institutes. Newton claimed that the idea of universal force came to him while he was alone in the country, avoiding the outbreak of the plague in the city of Cambridge. Newton came up with the idea that every pair of bodies in the universe attracts each other. The attracting force depends on the amount of matter in the bodies and the distance between the bodies. Thus Newton came up with the explanation of weight (Jacob 388).
Newton devised three major laws of motion:
Law I. Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.
Law II. The change of motion is proportional to the motive force impressed. It is made in the direction of the straight line in which the force is impressed.
Law III. To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or, the mutual actions of two bodies, each upon the other, are always equal and directly opposed. (North 38)
Newton’s discoveries on the laws of motion and the theories of gravitation were published in 1687 in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). This work, usually called Principia or Principia Mathematica, is considered one of the greatest single contributions in the history of science. It includes Newton’s laws of motion and theory of gravitation. It was the first book to contain a unified system of scientific principles explaining what happens on earth and in the heavens (Jacob 389).
Queen Anne knighted Isaac Newton in 1705, making him Sir Isaac Newton. He died in 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Isaac Newton made many great contributions and discoveries throughout his 85 years of existence. He is considered one of the smartest people to ever live. His life and contributions extend much further beyond the writings of this paper. He contributed a lot to the scientific revolution and enlightenment (c.1500-1800). This paper merely “scratched the surface” of Newton’s life. It is difficult to write a short paper on one of the greatest people to ever live. Newton is by far one of the most significant contributors of ideas and theories to the advancement of knowledge and learning.
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North, J.D. Isaac Newton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Schuster, J.A. “Sir Isaac Newton.” Academic American Encyclopedia. Deluxe Library Edition. 1997.