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Sir Isaac Newton - Scientist, Theologian, Mint Master, Alchemist, and More

By Edited Jun 11, 2015 0 0

Early Years

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas day 1642, in the quaint hamlet of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire in England. He was born in tumultuous times, but Woolsthorpe was somewhat isolated from the problems that beset the world. The young lad was raised in a Puritan community that resisted the threats of war and death from the plague. Isaac was named after his father, a prosperous yeoman, who died three months before he was born. He was of premature birth, and was deemed unlikely to survive.

Before Isaac turned three years old, his mother, Hanna Ayscough Newton remarried. From then on, his grandmother cared for Isaac, because her mother wanted to raise a new family with a wealthy realtor named Barnabas Smith. Isaac’s mother and his stepfather had two daughters and a son. When Barnabas died in 1653, it was only then that the young Isaac was able to spend time with his mother once again. He was 12 years old when Isaac was reunited with her, and became acquainted with his half-siblings. These events in his childhood are often cited as the foundations for Newton’s emotional upheavals in adulthood. Despite his genius, Newton’s adult life was riddled with anxiety and punctuated with violent attacks towards friends and enemies. 

Newton's Apple

Newton’s interest in alchemical research greatly influenced his work on planetary dynamics. He was rigorous in his investigations about the forces at work in nature, which are hidden to human eyes. Mechanical philosophy governed the forces involving matter in motion, but without the concept of action-at-a-distance, which had its roots in alchemical studies; Newton would not have been able to formulate his theories on celestial mechanics. With this knowledge of Mathematics, Newton was able to formulate the laws that he became known for.

It took almost 20 years before his ideas on gravitation became manifested as a full-blown theory. Nevertheless, it has been often mentioned that Newton’s observations of a falling apple in 1666, while engaged in his scientific musings at Woolsthorpe, started him thinking about gravity. Based on this story, the falling apple led Newton to think of parallels between the behavior of the fruit and the Moon’s motion around the Earth. This was merely the embers of a flame that was fanned by a yearlong correspondence with another scientist, Robert Hooke, which started in 1679. By 1680, Isaac Newton had come to his own conclusions about gravitation. His studies on planetary motion astronomy helped him consolidate the ideas that he had. Before Newton’s revolutionary ideas on gravity and motion of celestial bodies, the popular notion was that the attraction between bodies separated by empty space was mediated by unseen particles.

Newton made mathematical calculations to determine the force required to hold the Moon in its orbit around the Earth. He compared this kind of force to that required to pull an object toward the ground (e.g. an apple). Moreover, he also calculated the relationship between the length of a pendulum and its swing direction, as well as the amount of force required to keep a stone from falling off a sling while it is being wielded. His calculations motivated Newton to correspond with astronomer Edmond Halley in 1684. Newton explained to Halley that the path of a body that is subjected to a force that is centrally directed is an ellipse. He also explained the relationship between the force and the distance between two bodies. Newton wrote a brief tract on mechanics. Later on, he developed his seminal work, the Principia

When his mother returned, the young Newton was already studying in Lincolnshire, at King’s School in a town called Grantham. He lived at a local apothecary. This place was Isaac’s first exposure to the science of chemistry. Nevertheless, his mother wanted him to pursue farming, which Isaac found tedious. Because of his failure at farming, he was sent back to school. The young Newton had a keen intellect, which was evident to those who knew him. Yet, he did not excel as a student. He just did well enough to graduate and quality for higher education. An uncle recommended that Isaac be enrolled in his alma mater, the University of Cambridge's Trinity College where he might thrive.

In 1661, Isaac Newton was accepted into Cambridge University, which was an important center for learning in the 17th century. His uncle was able to persuade his mother to send him to Cambridge in a program akin to modern-day work-study set-up. To support his daily expenses, Isaac maintained the rooms of wealthy students and waited on tables. There is not much information about the activities that Newton engaged himself in as an undergraduate. The curriculum at Cambridge at that time was focused on classical authors. Perhaps, this kind of structure motivated Newton to engross himself in private study. It is well known that he delved into learning about some of the most important names in the scientific revolution, such as Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes. Newton was particularly interested in Mathematics. Aside from Geometrie by Descartes, he also advanced his knowledge of Euclid. In addition, he explored the findings of optics pioneers Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle. He completed his bachelor’s degree without honors in 1665.

“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth.”—Isaac Newton

From 1665-1666, he took a break from Cambridge in order to stay away from the plague. The University was closed at this time. During this period, Lincoln spent most of his days in Lincolnshire. It was during this time, which was to him the prime age of his invention, he started working on his seminal work, on the Principia or the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). It was a fortuitous 18 months for the young thinker. The time he spent with his musings was his most productive, and he made original contributions to science in various topics, including infinitesimal calculus, optics, and planetary motion.

The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy is Newton’s finest contribution to scientific knowledge. The manuscript was published in 1687 in Latin. Newton continued revised his work and published the Principia anew in 1713 and 1726. The Principia was translated into the English language in 1729.

Book I of the Principia revolves around the discussion of the foundations of mathematics and science. Here, he discussed the role of gravitational force as fundamental in the motion of all celestial bodies. In this part of the publication, he explored the nuances of orbital motion round centers of force.

In Book II, he introduced his theory of fluids, particularly motion through fluids and pertinent problems involved in the movement of fluids. Meanwhile, in Book III, Newton discussed the influence of gravitation in the known Universe. He used the movements of the six known planets at that time as well as their observed moons. The laws he formulated encompassed the observed behavior of comets, but his laws still did not fully explain the motions of the Moon. His computations on the precession of the equinoxes and the tidal ebb and flow were mathematically accurate. Based on his ideas on gravitation, he also posited the relative masses of the heavenly bodies.

When Newton presented his three laws of motion and the laws of universal gravitation, as well as other concepts and computations concerning the celestial bodies, he was definitely ahead of his time. His theories are now considered one of the greatest achievements of human abstract thought. Before the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Theory, Newton’s planetary mechanics was the accepted law until the late 19th century. After immediate acceptance by the scientific community in Britain, the rest of the world followed suit, and Newton’s Laws became universal laws in just 50 years. Many other scientists expanded on it to explain natural phenomena, including notable astronomer and mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace.


The Principia was followed by Opticks: Or a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of Light, Also Two Treatises of the Species and Magnitude of Curvilinear Figures. Opticks was publishedin London in 1704. Unlike his earlier papers, this treatise was published in English. A revised scholarly edition, which was written in the Latin, was published in 1706.

The scope of Newton’s Opticks encompasses his theories on color and the light spectrum. His discussion included the refractive properties of different colors, a theory on the formation of rainbows, and the refracting telescope. He also presented the first color circle ever conceptualized in color theory. Newton’s discussion revolves around the behavior of light with the use of lenses, prisms, and sheets of glass.

In his second major publication on the physical sciences, Newton also presented pioneering experiments that supported the corpuscular theory of light, which Newton favored over the theory that light is in the form of a wave. The book is dissimilar to the Principia mostly because it presents deductions made from experiments that demonstrate how light is absorbed, reflected, and transmitted. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most important treatises ever written on the nature of light and color. One of the major findings presented by Newton overturned the accepted belief that sunlight is colorless, as proposed by Aristotle (or perhaps Theophrastus). He presented ample evidence that “pure” light is not altered into different colors due to interactions with matter. Instead, light is innately composed of seven different spectral hues. 

Isaac Newton's Portrait at age 1945

Isaac Newton


In 1661, Newton was elected as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. In 1667, Newton became a fellow at Trinity College, where he spent most of the next three years giving lectures.

In 1689, Isaac Newton became a Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge to the Convention Parliament. In 1671, Newton became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 1696, he was appointed as Warden of the Royal Mint, where he served as an able administrator. In 1699, he was promoted to Master of the Mint. He held this position until his death many years later.

Isaac Newton was elected as Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge to the Convention Parliament again from 1701-1702. In 1703, Newton was elected President of the Royal Society of London. He continued to play a part in the development of science during his tenure as the head of the Royal Society of London. He was an autocratic and controversial figure who exercised absolute control over younger members. He also entered into controversial disputes with his colleagues, including English astronomer John Flamsteed and German  philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. His disputes with English polymath and natural philosopher Robert Hooke were legendary.

In 1705, he was knighted in Cambridge. In the last few years of the 18th century, Sir Isaac Newton enjoyed the distinction of being recognized as the foremost  natural philosopher in the European continent. His publications had their share of critics, but Newtonian Science was spreading like wildfire in the continent and gaining wider acceptance. To this day, Sir Isaac Newton is considered as one of the most influential theorists and one of the most formidable original thinkers who ever lived. Nevertheless, he was an autocratic figure who exercised absolute dominance in the scientific landscape of his time. Amongst his peers, he was known for his irrational behavior and quickness to anger, particularly when his ideas were criticized or opposed. He tended to harbor resentment.

Isaac Newton did not take a wife. Despite fame and success in both mathematical research and experimental observation, he lived modestly. For three centuries, his ideas served as the pinnacle of the modern physical sciences. Less known is his interest in architecture, particularly in the dimensions and structure of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. He also delved in the study of chemistry and the history of Western civilization.

Sir Isaac Newton died on March 20, 1727. He was 84 years old. He was buried at Westminster Abbey in an elaborate ceremony attended by dignitaries and British royalty.

Very informative video on Newton's life


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  1. Richard S. Westfall "Sir Isaac Newton English physicist and mathematician." Encyclopedia Britannia. 2015.
  2. "Isaac Newton." wikipedia. 29/04/2015 <Web >

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