Newton was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist,
inventor, and natural philosopher who is generally regarded as one
of the most influential scientists in history.
Walter Lewin (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), "Newton's
work has a beauty and a simplicity and an elegance that makes
it the greatest work of science ever done."
wrote the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica wherein
he described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion,
laying the groundwork for classical mechanics. By deriving Kepler's
laws of planetary motion from this system, he was the first to
show that the motion of bodies on Earth and of celestial bodies
are governed by the same set of natural laws. The unifying and
deterministic power of his laws was integral to the scientific
revolution and the advancement of heliocentrism.
the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica Gale Christianson
(author of Isaac Newton) stated: "It is the greatest book
of science ever written, bar none. It is the most magnificent
work, it is the most all-encompassing work, it is the most daring
book of any scientific treatise ever written....By the time he
was 22 years of age, working on the calculus at Woolsthorpe, he
was the greatest mathematician the world had ever seen, and yet
no one knew. Only Newton knew, and it was his secret."
other scientific discoveries, Newton realized that the spectrum
of colours observed when white light passes through a prism is
inherent in the white light and not added by the prism (as Roger
Bacon had claimed in the 13th century), and notably argued that
light is composed of particles. He also developed a law of cooling,
describing the rate of cooling of objects when exposed to air.
He enunciated the principles of conservation of momentum and angular
momentum. Finally, he studied the speed of sound in air, and voiced
a theory of the origin of stars.
Westerners, Newton played a major role in the history of calculus,
sharing credit with Gottfried Leibniz. He also made contributions
to other areas of mathematics, having derived the binomial theorem
in its entirety. The mathematician and mathematical physicist
Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736–1813), said that "Newton
was the greatest genius that ever existed and the most fortunate,
for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish."
was born in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth (at Woolsthorpe Manor),
a hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire. Newton was prematurely
born and no one expected him to live; indeed, his mother, Hannah
Ayscough Newton, is reported to have said that his body at that
time could have fit inside a quart mug (Bell, 1937). His father,
Isaac, had died three months before Newton's birth. When Newton
was two, his mother went to live with her new husband, leaving
her son in the care of his grandmother.
to E.T. Bell (1937, Simon and Schuster) and H. Eves:
began his schooling in the village schools and was later sent
to Grantham Grammar School where he became the top boy in the
school. At Grantham he lodged with the local apothecary, William
Clarke and eventually became engaged to the apothecary's stepdaughter,
Anne Storer, before he went off to Cambridge University at the
age of 19. As Newton became engrossed in his studies, the romance
cooled and Miss Storer married someone else. It is said he kept
a warm memory of this love, but Newton had no other recorded 'sweethearts'
and never married.
William Stukeley and Mrs Vincent, the source which Bell and Eves
have embroidered so unhelpfully, merely say that Newton entertained
'a passion' for her while he lodged at the Clarke house. Mrs Vincent's
maiden name was Katherine Storer, not Anne.
the age of about twelve until he was seventeen, Newton was educated
at The King's School in Grantham (where his signature can still
be seen upon a library window sill). He was removed from school
and by Oct 1659 he was to be found at Woolsthorpe where his mother
attempted to make a farmer of him. He was, by later reports of
his contemporaries, thoroughly unhappy with the work. It appears
to be Henry Stokes, master at the King's School, who persuaded
his mother to send him back to school so that he might complete
his education. This he did at the age of eighteen, achieving an
admirable final report. His teacher said:
genius now begins to mount upwards apace and shine out with more
strength. He excels particularly in making verses. In everything
he undertakes, he discovers an application equal to the pregnancy
of his parts and exceeds even the most sanguine expectations I
have conceived of him.
June 1661 he matriculated to Trinity College, Cambridge. At that
time, the college's teachings were based on those of Aristotle,
but Newton preferred to read the more advanced ideas of modern
philosophers such as Descartes and astronomers such as Galileo,
Copernicus and Kepler. In 1665 he discovered the binomial theorem
and began to develop a mathematical theory that would later become
calculus. Soon after Newton had obtained his degree in 1665, the
University closed down as a precaution against the Great Plague
of London. For the next 18 months Newton worked at home on calculus,
optics and the law of gravitation.
Newton became a fellow of Trinity College in 1669. In the same
year he circulated his findings in De Analysi per Aequationes
Numeri Terminorum Infinitas (On Analysis by Infinite Series),
and later in De methodis serierum et fluxionum (On the Methods
of Series and Fluxions), whose title gave rise to the "method
is generally credited with the binomial theorem, an essential
step toward the development of modern analysis. Newton and Gottfried
Leibniz developed the calculus independently, using different
notations. Although Newton had worked out his method years before
Leibniz, he published almost nothing about it until 1693, and
did not give a full account until 1704. Meanwhile, Leibniz began
publishing a full account of his methods in 1684. Moreover, Leibniz's
notation and "differential Method" were universally
adopted on the Continent, and after 1820 or so, in the British
claimed that he had been reluctant to publish his calculus because
he feared being mocked for it. Starting in 1699, other members
of the Royal Society accused Leibniz of plagiarism, and the dispute
broke out in full force in 1711. Thus began the bitter calculus
priority dispute with Leibniz, which marred the lives of both
Newton and Leibniz until the latter's death in 1716. This dispute
created a divide between British and Continental mathematicians
that may have retarded the progress of British mathematics by
at least a century.
discovered Newton's identities, Newton's method, classified polynomials
of degree 3 in 2 variables, made substantial contributions to
the theory of finite differences, and was the first to use fractional
indices and to employ coordinate geometry to derive solutions
to diophantine equations. He approximated partial sums of the
harmonic series by logarithms (a precursor to Euler's summation
formula), and was the first to use power series with confidence
and to revert power series. He discovered new formulae for pi.
was elected Lucasian professor of mathematics in 1669. In that
day, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford had to be an ordained Anglican
priest. However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required
that the holder not be active in the church (presumably so as
to have more time for science). Newton argued that this should
exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose
permission was needed, accepted this argument. Thus a conflict
between Newton's religious views and Anglican orthodoxy was averted.
From 1670 to 1672 he lectured on optics. During this period he
investigated the refraction of light, demonstrating that a prism
could decompose white light into a spectrum of colours, and that
a lens and a second prism could recompose the multicoloured spectrum
into white light. He also showed that the coloured light does
not change its properties, by separating out a coloured beam and
shining it on various objects.
noted that regardless of whether it was reflected or scattered
or transmitted, it stayed the same colour. Thus the colours we
observe are the result of how objects interact with the incident
already-coloured light, not the result of objects generating the
colour. For more details, see Newton's theory of colour. Many
of his findings in this field were criticized by later theorists,
the most well-known being Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who postulated
his own colour theories.
this work he concluded that any refracting telescope would suffer
from the dispersion of light into colours, and invented a reflecting
telescope (today, known as a Newtonian telescope) to bypass that
problem. By grinding his own mirrors, using Newton's rings to
judge the quality of the optics for his telescopes, he was able
to produce a superior instrument to the refracting telescope,
due primarily to the wider diameter of the mirror. (Only later,
as glasses with a variety of refractive properties became available,
did achromatic lenses for refractors become feasible.)
1671 the Royal Society asked for a demonstration of his reflecting
telescope. Their interest encouraged him to publish his notes
On Colour, which he later expanded into his Opticks. When Robert
Hooke criticised some of Newton's ideas, Newton was so offended
that he withdrew from public debate. The two men remained enemies
until Hooke's death.
one experiment, to prove that colour perception is caused by pressure
on the eye, Newton slid a darning needle around the side of his
eye until he could poke at its rear side, dispassionately noting
"white, darke & coloured circles" so long as he
kept stirring with "ye bodkin."
argued that light is composed of particles, but he had to associate
them with waves to explain the diffraction of light (Opticks Bk.
II, Props. XII-XX). Later physicists instead favoured a purely
wavelike explanation of light to account for diffraction. Today's
quantum mechanics restores the idea of "wave-particle duality",
although photons bear very little resemblance to Newton's corpuscles
(e.g., corpuscles refracted by accelerating toward the denser
is believed to have been the first to explain precisely the formation
of the rainbow from water droplets dispersed in the atmosphere
in a rain shower. Figure 15 of Part II of Book One of the Opticks
shows a perfect illustration of how this occurs.
his Hypothesis of Light of 1675, Newton posited the existence
of the ether to transmit forces between particles. Newton was
in contact with Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist who was born
in Grantham, on alchemy, and now his interest in the subject revived.
He replaced the ether with occult forces based on Hermetic ideas
of attraction and repulsion between particles. John Maynard Keynes,
who acquired many of Newton's writings on alchemy, stated that
"Newton was not the first of the age of reason: he was the
last of the magicians."
interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions
to science 2. (This was at a time when there was no clear distinction
between alchemy and science.) Had he not relied on the occult
idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have
developed his theory of gravity.
1704 Newton wrote Opticks, in which he expounded his corpuscular
theory of light. The book is also known for the first exposure
of the idea of the interchangeability of mass and energy: "Gross
bodies and light are convertible into one another...". Newton
also constructed a primitive form of a frictional electrostatic
generator, using a glass globe (Optics, 8th Query).
In 1679, Newton returned to his work on mechanics, i.e., gravitation
and its effect on the orbits of planets, with reference to Kepler's
laws of motion, and consulting with Hooke and Flamsteed on the
subject. He published his results in De Motu Corporum (1684).
This contained the beginnings of the laws of motion that would
inform the Principia.
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (now known as the
Principia) was published on 5 July 1687 with encouragement and
financial help from Edmond Halley. In this work Newton stated
the three universal laws of motion that were not to be improved
upon for more than two hundred years. He used the Latin word gravitas
(weight) for the force that would become known as gravity, and
defined the law of universal gravitation. In the same work he
presented the first analytical determination, based on Boyle's
law, of the speed of sound in air.
the Principia, Newton became internationally recognised. He acquired
a circle of admirers, including the Swiss-born mathematician Nicolas
Fatio de Duillier, with whom he formed an intense relationship
that lasted until 1693. The end of this friendship led Newton
to a nervous breakdown.
In the 1690s Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing
with the literal interpretation of the Bible. Henry More's belief
in the infinity of the universe and rejection of Cartesian dualism
may have influenced Newton's religious ideas. A manuscript he
sent to John Locke in which he disputed the existence of the Trinity
was never published. Later works — The Chronology of Ancient
Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of
Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) — were published
after his death. He also devoted a great deal of time to alchemy
was also a member of the Parliament of England from 1689 to 1690
and in 1701, but his only recorded comments were to complain about
a cold draft in the chamber and request that the window be closed.
moved to London to take up the post of warden of the Royal Mint
in 1696, a position that he had obtained through the patronage
of Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, then Chancellor of the
Exchequer. He took charge of England's great recoining, somewhat
treading on the toes of Master Lucas (and finagling Edmond Halley
into the job of deputy comptroller of the temporary Chester branch).
became Master of the Mint upon Lucas' death in 1699. These appointments
were intended as sinecures, but Newton took them seriously, exercising
his power to reform the currency and punish clippers and counterfeiters.
He retired from his Cambridge duties in 1701. Ironically, it was
his work at the Mint, rather than his contributions to science,
which earned him a knighthood from Queen Anne in 1705.
was made President of the Royal Society in 1703 and an associate
of the French Académie des Sciences. In his position at
the Royal Society, Newton made an enemy of John Flamsteed, the
Astronomer Royal, by prematurely publishing Flamsteed's star catalogue.
died in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His niece,
Catherine Barton Conduitt3, served as his hostess in social affairs
at his house on Jermyn Street in London; he was her "very
loving Uncle" , according to his letter to her when she was
recovering from smallpox.
later years there has been some speculation that Newton had Asperger
syndrome, a form of autism. See People speculated to have been
autistic. It has also been suggested that Isaac Newton may have
died a virgin. There were no known romantic encounters during
his lifetime. Also, Newton's prudent character and obsessive manner
may have deterred the prospect of sexual encounters.
The law of gravity became Newton's best-known discovery. He warned
against using it to view the universe as a mere machine, like
a great clock. He said, "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."
scientific fame notwithstanding, the Bible was Newton's greatest
passion. He devoted more time to the study of Scripture and Alchemy
than to science, and said, "I have a fundamental belief in
the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired.
I study the Bible daily." Newton himself wrote works on textual
criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions
also placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33,
which is now the accepted traditional date. He also attempted,
unsuccessfully, to find hidden messages within the Bible. Despite
his focus in theology and alchemy, Newton tested and investigated
these myths with the scientific method, observing, hypothesizing,
and testing his theories. To Newton, his scientific and religious
experiments were one and the same, observing and understanding
how the world functioned.
rejected the church's doctrine of the trinity, and was probably
a follower of arianism. In a minority view, T.C. Pfizenmaier argues
that he more likely held the Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity
rather than the Western one held by Roman Catholics, Anglicans,
and most Protestants 7. In his own day, he was also accused of
being a Rosicrucian (as were many in the Royal Society and in
the court of Charles II).
his own lifetime, Newton wrote more on religion than he did on
natural science. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but
he rejected the hylozoism implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza.
Thus, the ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood,
and must be understood, by an active reason, but this universe,
to be perfect and ordained, had to be regular.
effect on religious thought
Newton and Robert Boyle’s mechanical philosophy was promoted
by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists
and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers
as well as dissident preachers like the latitudinarians. Thus,
the clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat
the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of both superstitious
enthusiasm and the threat of atheism, and, at the same time, the
second wave of English deists used Newton's discoveries to demonstrate
the possibility of a "Natural Religion."
attacks made against pre-Enlightenment "magical thinking,"
and the mystical elements of Christianity, were given their foundation
with Boyle’s mechanical conception of the universe. Newton
gave Boyle’s ideas their completion through mathematical
proofs, and more importantly was very successful in popularising
them. Newton refashioned the world governed by an interventionist
God into a world crafted by a God that designs along rational
and universal principles. These principles were available for
all people to discover, allowed man to pursue his own aims fruitfully
in this life, not the next, and to perfect himself with his own
rational powers. The perceived ability of Newtonians to explain
the world, both physical and social, through logical calculations
alone is the crucial idea in the disenchantment of Christianity.
saw God as the master creator whose existence could not be denied
in the face of the grandeur of all creation. But the unforeseen
theological consequence of his conception of God, as Leibniz pointed
out, was that God was now entirely removed from the world’s
affairs, since the need for intervention would only evidence some
imperfection in God’s creation, something impossible for
a perfect and omnipotent creator.
theodicy cleared God from the responsibility for "l'origine
du mal" by making God removed from participation in his creation.
The understanding of the world was now brought down to the level
of simple human reason, and humans, as Odo Marquard argued, became
responsible for the correction and elimination of evil.
the other hand, latitudinarian and Newtonian ideas taken too far
resulted in the millenarians, a religious faction dedicated to
the concept of a mechanical universe, but finding in it the same
enthusiasm and mysticism that the Enlightenment had fought so
hard to extinguish.
and the counterfeiters
As warden of the royal mint, Newton estimated that 20% of the
coins taken in during The Great Recoinage were counterfeit. Counterfeiting
was treason, punishable by death by drawing and quartering. Despite
this, convictions of the most flagrant criminals could be maddeningly
impossible to achieve; however, Newton proved to be equal to the
assembled facts and proved his theories with the same brilliance
in law that he had shown in science. He gathered much of that
evidence himself, disguised, while he hung out at bars and taverns.
For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the
branches of government, English law still had ancient and formidable
customs of authority.
was made a justice of the peace and between June 1698 and Christmas
1699 conducted some 200 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers
and suspects. Newton later ordered all records of his interrogations
to be destroyed. Regardless, Newton won his convictions and in
February 1699, he had ten prisoners waiting to be executed.
greatest triumph as the king's attorney was against William Chaloner,
a rogue with a devious intelligence. One of his schemes was to
set up phoney conspiracies of Catholics and then turned in the
hapless conspirators whom he entrapped. Chaloner made himself
rich enough to posture as a gentleman. Petitioning Parliament,
Chaloner accused the Mint of providing tools to counterfeiters
(a charge also made by others).
proposed that he be allowed to inspect the Mint's processes in
order to improve them. He petitioned Parliament to adopt his plans
for a coinage that could not be counterfeited. All the time, he
struck false coins, or so Newton eventually proved to a court
of competent jurisdiction. On March 23, 1699, Chaloner was hanged,
drawn and quartered.
Enlightenment philosophers chose a short history of scientific
predecessors—Galileo, Boyle, and Newton principally—as
the guides and guarantors of their applications of the singular
concept of Nature and Natural Law to every physical and social
field of the day. In this respect, the lessons of history and
the social structures built upon it could be discarded.19
was Newton’s conception of the universe based upon Natural
and rationally understandable laws that became the seed for Enlightenment
ideology. Locke and Voltaire applied concepts of Natural Law to
political systems advocating intrinsic rights; the physiocrats
and Adam Smith applied Natural conceptions of psychology and self-interest
to economic systems and the sociologists critiqued how the current
social order fit history into Natural models of progress.
Newton's laws of motion and gravity provided a basis for predicting
a wide variety of different scientific or engineering situations,
especially the motion of celestial bodies. His calculus proved
vitally important to the development of further scientific theories.
Finally, he unified many of the isolated physics facts that had
been discovered earlier into a satisfying system of laws.
conceptions of gravity and mechanics, though not entirely correct
in light of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, still represent an
enormous step in the evolution of human understanding of the universe.
For this reason, he is generally considered one of history's greatest
1717, the Kingdom of Great Britain went on to an unofficial gold
standard when Newton, then Master of the Mint, established a fixed
price of £3.17.10 ½d per standard (22 carat) troy
ounce, equal to £4.4.11 ½d per fine ounce. Under
the gold standard the value of the pound (measured in gold weight)
remained largely constant until the beginning of the 20th century.
is reputed to have invented the cat flap. This was said to be
done so that he would not have to disrupt his optical experiments,
conducted in a darkened room, to let his cat in or out.
is a holiday celebrated by some scientists as an alternative to
Christmas, taking advantage of the fact that Newton's birthday
falls on 25 December.
July 1992, the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences
was opened at Cambridge University - it is regarded as the United
Kingdom's national institute for mathematical research.
The famous three laws of Newton are:
Newton's First Law (also known as the Law of Inertia) states that
an object at rest tends to stay at rest and that an object in
motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by a net external
2. Newton's Second Law states that an applied force equals the
rate of change of momentum. For constant mass: F=ma, or force
equals mass times acceleration. In other words, the acceleration
produced by a net force on an object is directly proportional
to the magnitude of the net force and inversely proportional to
the mass. In the MKS system of measurement, mass is given in kilograms,
acceleration in meters per second squared, and force in newtons
(named in his honor).
3. Newton's Third Law states that for every action there is an
equal and opposite reaction.
A popular story claims that Newton was inspired to formulate his
theory of universal gravitation by the fall of an apple from a
tree. Cartoons have gone further to suggest the apple actually
hit Newton's head, and that its impact somehow made him aware
of the force of gravity. There is no basis to that interpretation,
but the story of the apple may have something to it. John Conduitt,
Newton's assistant at the royal mint and husband of Newton's niece,
described the event when he wrote about Newton's life:
the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge ... to his mother
in Lincolnshire & while he was musing in a garden it came
into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple
from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance
from earth, but that this power must extend much further than
was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon thought he to
himself & that if so, that must influence her motion &
perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a-calculating
what would be the effect of that superposition...
question was not whether gravity existed, but whether it extended
so far from Earth that it could also be the force holding the
moon to its orbit. Newton showed that if the force decreased as
the inverse square of the distance, one could indeed calculate
the Moon's orbital period, and get good agreement. He guessed
the same force was responsible for other orbital motions, and
hence named it universal gravitation.
contemporary writer, William Stukeley, recorded in his Memoirs
of Sir Isaac Newton's Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington
on 15 April 1726, in which Newton recalled "when formerly,
the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned
by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why
should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,
thought he to himself. Why should it not go sideways or upwards,
but constantly to the earth's centre." In similar terms,
Voltaire wrote in his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727), "Sir Isaac
Newton walking in his gardens, had the first thought of his system
of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree."
These accounts are exaggerations of Newton's own tale about sitting
by a window in his home (Woolsthorpe Manor) and watching an apple
fall from a tree.
Writings by Newton
1. Method of Fluxions (1671)
2. De Motu Corporum in Gyrum (1684)
3. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
4. Opticks (1704)
5. Reports as Master of the Mint (1701-1725)
6. Arithmetica Universalis (1707)
7. An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture
8. Short Chronicle, The System of the World, Optical Lectures,
Universal Arithmetic, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, Amended
and De mundi systemate were published posthumously in 1728.