The chief figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century was Sir Isaac Newton. He was considered one of the best scientists of all time. Much of modern science is based on the understanding and use of his laws (Knight 206). Although he is best known for the discovery of the law of universal gravitation, he also laid foundations of calculus, extended the understanding of color and light, and studied the mechanics of planetary motion. No other man has been as influential on our perceptions of our world than Isaac Newton (Martens).
Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day in 1642, in the small town of Woolsthorpe, England . His widowed mother remarried when he was three and left Isaac behind to stay with his grandmother on the familys farm. At the age of twelve, he was sent to Kings School in Grantham, a nearby town. He was, at first, a poor student. He did not care about his schoolwork; he just wanted to paint, write in his notebooks and invent toys. He was, consequently, at the bottom of his class. Oddly, it was a school bully that motivated him to do better in school. The bully kicked him and Isaac flew into a rage and beat him to pieces. This inspired him to beat the other boy in schoolwork as well. He soon became the head of his class. In 1656, his stepfather died and his mother returned to manage the farm; Isaac was taken out of school to help her. Newton was a complete failure at farming so his mother sent him back to Kings School where he graduated in 1661 (Knight 206). His mothers brother, a clergyman who had been an undergraduate at Cambridge, persuaded Isaacs mother to send him to a university (Fowler).
In 1661, Isaac attended Trinity College, Cambridge University, as a poor scholar. For the first three years, he paid his way through school by waiting tables and cleaning rooms for the fellows (faculty) and wealthier students (Fowler). He showed no particular promise at Cambridge, but Isaac Barrow, who held the Lucasian chair of mathematics, encouraged him. He quickly proved to his professors that he was no ordinary student- he read all the books he could get, especially those about mathematics and physics (Knight 206). In 1665 at the age of 22, he worked out a basic math formula that is used to this day. It is now called the binomial theorem. That same year, he received a degree and graduated from Trinity College. Newton was also elected a scholar and was guaranteed four years of financial support (Fowler). He would have stayed to continue his studies and get his MA, but the Great Plague broke out and the university closed (Biography).
During the time of the Plague, Newton returned home to his familys farm in Woolsthorpe and continued in his studies of light, mathematics, and gravity. During this time at home, he first understood the theory of optics, and the theory of gravitation (Fowler). In 1665, a falling apple raised the question in his mind of whether the force exerted by the earth in making the apple fall was the same force that attracted the moon to fall towards the earth and so stay in orbit around the earth (Biography). These thoughts inspired Newton to begin working out the law concerning attraction between all objects in the universe. This is now called the law of universal gravitation (Knight 207).
Around 1666, Newton began his study of optics. By passing a narrow beam of light through a prism in a dark room, he discovered that white light could be made to separate into a series of different colors. The beam of light projected the emerging rays on a panel and got a brilliant spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. He then directed the colored beams through another prism and recombined them, thus getting back to the original light. He also isolated the colors one at a time and found that nothing could be done to change them in any way. From this, he concluded that white light was a mixture of pure colors. This was called the theory of optics(Mueller, Conrad, and Rudolph).
Upon return to Cambridge, Newton became a Fellow of Trinity College, and took his MA in 1668. In the year following that, Isaac Barrow resigned his chair to Newton (Biography). In 1684, three members of the Royal Society, Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and Edmond Halley argued as to whether the elliptical orbits of the planets could result from a gravitational force. Halley went up to Cambridge to present this question to Isaac Newton (Fowler). Newton told him that the force between the sun and the planets, resulting in an elliptical orbit, operated according to an inverse square law and that he had proved it. Three months later, Newton sent an improved version of the proof to Halley. Halley convinced Newton to write a book and, after much friction between Newton and Robert Hooke, who demanded credit for discovering the inverse-square law of attraction, the book came out in 1687. It was titled Philosophiae naturalis principia matematica, most commonly called Principia. This book was left unpublished for years, but it established him as the greatest of all physical scientists(Biography). It was in this book that he first described the laws now known as Newtons Laws of Motion (Martens).
Most of Newtons life was spent in conflict with other scientists and he sought revenge by deleting references to their help from his work. He took criticism very badly, this has often been explained as a result of his abandonment when he was a child. He had a breakdown in 1693 and thus ended his scientific career. In 1696 Newton was appointed warden of the Mint. At that time a complete recoinage and standardization of coins was taking place. When this was finished, he was appointed master of the Mint. He was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703 and was Knighted in 1705 by Queen Anne (Biography; Knight 207). Isaac Newton died in 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey among other great men of England.
Isaac Newton accompished an immeasurable number of things. It is very difficult to summarize his significance in the science and math world. Although Newton was one of the greatest scientists ever, he had an humble and modest perception of himself and his career. This was shown in his last words: “I don’t know what I may seem to the world. But as to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then to find a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me” (Adventure).
1. Knight, David C. Newton, Isaac. The New Book of Knowledge. 1986 ed.
-Mueller, Conrad, and Rudolph. Light and Vision. Life Science Library. Time Incorporated. New York 1966.