Sir Isaac Newton PRS MP was an English physicist and mathematician (described in his own day as a "natural philosopher") who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics and shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the invention of calculus.
Newton's Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists' view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. By deriving Kepler's laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the cosmos. This work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. His prediction that the Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes.
Newton also built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed Newton's method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves.
Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. In his later life, Newton became president of the Royal Society. He also served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.
Isaac Newton was an established physicist and mathematician, and is credited as one of the great minds of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. With discoveries in optics, motion and mathematics, Newton developed the principles of modern physics. In 1687, he published his most acclaimed work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which has been called the single most influential book on physics.
In 1664, while still a student, Newton read recent work on optics and light by the English physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke; he also studied both the mathematics and the physics of the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes. He investigated the refraction of light by a glass prism; developing over a few years a series of increasingly elaborate, refined, and exact experiments, Newton discovered measurable, mathematical patterns in the phenomenon of colour. He found white light to be a mixture of infinitely varied coloured rays (manifest in the rainbow and the spectrum), each ray definable by the angle through which it is refracted on entering or leaving a given transparent medium. He correlated this notion with his study of the interference colours of thin films (for example, of oil on water, or soap bubbles), using a simple technique of extreme acuity to measure the thickness of such films. He held that light consisted of streams of minute particles. From his experiments he could infer the magnitudes of the transparent "corpuscles" forming the surfaces of bodies, which, according to their dimensions, so interacted with white light as to reflect, selectively, the different observed colours of those surfaces.
The roots of these unconventional ideas were with Newton by about 1668; when first expressed (tersely and partially) in public in 1672 and 1675, they provoked hostile criticism, mainly because colours were thought to be modified forms of homogeneous white light. Doubts, and Newton's rejoinders, were printed in the learned journals. Notably, the scepticism of Christiaan Huygens and the failure of the French physicist Edmé Mariotte to duplicate Newton's refraction experiments in 1681 set scientists on the Continent against him for a generation. The publication of Opticks, largely written by 1692, was delayed by Newton until the critics were dead. The book was still imperfect: the colours of diffraction defeated Newton. Nevertheless, Opticks established itself, from about 1715, as a model of the interweaving of theory with quantitative experimentation.
In mathematics too, early brilliance appeared in Newton's student notes. He may have learnt geometry at school, though he always spoke of himself as self-taught; certainly he advanced through studying the writings of his compatriots William Oughtred and John Wallis, and of Descartes and the Dutch school. Newton made contributions to all branches of mathematics then studied, but is especially famous for his solutions to the contemporary problems in analytical geometry of drawing tangents to curves (differentiation) and defining areas bounded by curves (integration). Not only did Newton discover that these problems were inverse to each other, but he discovered general methods of resolving problems of curvature, embraced in his "method of fluxions" and "inverse method of fluxions", respectively equivalent to Leibniz's later differential and integral calculus. Newton used the term "fluxion" (from Latin meaning "flow") because he imagined a quantity "flowing" from one magnitude to another. Fluxions were expressed algebraically, as Leibniz's differentials were, but Newton made extensive use also (especially in the Principia) of analogous geometrical arguments. Late in life, Newton expressed regret for the algebraic style of recent mathematical progress, preferring the geometrical method of the Classical Greeks, which he regarded as clearer and more rigorous.
Newton's work on pure mathematics was virtually hidden from all but his correspondents until 1704, when he published, with Opticks, a tract on the quadrature of curves (integration) and another on the classification of the cubic curves. His Cambridge lectures, delivered from about 1673 to 1683, were published in 1707.
The Calculus Priority Dispute
Newton had the essence of the methods of fluxions by 1666. The first to become known, privately, to other mathematicians, in 1668, was his method of integration by infinite series. In Paris in 1675 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently evolved the first ideas of his differential calculus, outlined to Newton in 1677. Newton had already described some of his mathematical discoveries to Leibniz, not including his method of fluxions. In 1684 Leibniz published his first paper on calculus; a small group of mathematicians took up his ideas.
In the 1690s Newton's friends proclaimed the priority of Newton's methods of fluxions. Supporters of Leibniz asserted that he had communicated the differential method to Newton, although Leibniz had claimed no such thing. Newtonians then asserted, rightly, that Leibniz had seen papers of Newton's during a London visit in 1676; in reality, Leibniz had taken no notice of material on fluxions. A violent dispute sprang up, part public, part private, extended by Leibniz to attacks on Newton's theory of gravitation and his ideas about God and creation; it was not ended even by Leibniz's death in 1716. The dispute delayed the reception of Newtonian science on the Continent, and dissuaded British mathematicians from sharing the researches of Continental colleagues for a century.
According to the well-known story, it was on seeing an apple fall in his orchard at some time during 1665 or 1666 that Newton conceived that the same force governed the motion of the Moon and the apple. He calculated the force needed to hold the Moon in its orbit, as compared with the force pulling an object to the ground. He also calculated the centripetal force needed to hold a stone in a sling, and the relation between the length of a pendulum and the time of its swing. These early explorations were not soon exploited by Newton, though he studied astronomy and the problems of planetary motion.
Correspondence with Hooke (1679-1680) redirected Newton to the problem of the path of a body subjected to a centrally directed force that varies as the inverse square of the distance; he determined it to be an ellipse, so informing Edmond Halley in August 1684. Halley's interest led Newton to demonstrate the relationship afresh, to compose a brief tract on mechanics, and finally to write the Principia.
Book I of the Principia states the foundations of the science of mechanics, developing upon them the mathematics of orbital motion round centres of force. Newton identified gravitation as the fundamental force controlling the motions of the celestial bodies. He never found its cause. To contemporaries who found the idea of attractions across empty space unintelligible, he conceded that they might prove to be caused by the impacts of unseen particles.
Book II inaugurates the theory of fluids: Newton solves problems of fluids in movement and of motion through fluids. From the density of air he calculated the speed of sound waves.
Book III shows the law of gravitation at work in the universe: Newton demonstrates it from the revolutions of the six known planets, including the Earth, and their satellites. However, he could never quite perfect the difficult theory of the Moon's motion. Comets were shown to obey the same law; in later editions, Newton added conjectures on the possibility of their return. He calculated the relative masses of heavenly bodies from their gravitational forces, and the oblateness of Earth and Jupiter, already observed. He explained tidal ebb and flow and the precession of the equinoxes from the forces exerted by the Sun and Moon. All this was done by exact computation.
Newton's work in mechanics was accepted at once in Britain, and universally after half a century. Since then it has been ranked among humanity's greatest achievements in abstract thought. It was extended and perfected by others, notably Pierre Simon de Laplace, without changing its basis and it survived into the late 19th century before it began to show signs of failing.
Newton left a mass of manuscripts on the subjects of alchemy and chemistry, then closely related topics. Most of these were extracts from books, bibliographies, dictionaries, and so on, but a few are original. He began intensive experimentation in 1669, continuing till he left Cambridge, seeking to unravel the meaning that he hoped was hidden in alchemical obscurity and mysticism. He sought understanding of the nature and structure of all matter, formed from the "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles" that he believed God had created. Most importantly in the "Queries" appended to "Opticks" and in the essay "On the Nature of Acids" (1710), Newton published an incomplete theory of chemical force, concealing his exploration of the alchemists, which became known a century after his death.
Newton owned more books on humanistic learning than on mathematics and science; all his life he studied them deeply. His unpublished "classical scholia"explanatory notes intended for use in a future edition of the Principiareveal his knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophy; he read the Fathers of the Church even more deeply. Newton sought to reconcile Greek mythology and record with the Bible, considered the prime authority on the early history of mankind. In his work on chronology he undertook to make Jewish and pagan dates compatible, and to fix them absolutely from an astronomical argument about the earliest constellation figures devised by the Greeks. He put the fall of Troy at 904 BC, about 500 years later than other scholars; this was not well received.
Newton also wrote on Judaeo-Christian prophecy, whose decipherment was essential, he thought, to the understanding of God. His book on the subject, which was reprinted well into the Victorian Age, represented lifelong study. Its message was that Christianity went astray in the 4th century AD, when the first Council of Nicaea propounded erroneous doctrines of the nature of Christ. The full extent of Newton's unorthodoxy was recognized only in the present century: but although a critic of accepted Trinitarian dogmas and the Council of Nicaea, he possessed a deep religious sense, venerated the Bible and accepted its account of creation. In late editions of his scientific works he expressed a strong sense of God's providential role in nature.
Newton published an edition of Geographia generalis by the German geographer Varenius in 1672. His own letters on optics appeared in print from 1672 to 1676. Then he published nothing until the Principia (published in Latin in 1687; revised in 1713 and 1726; and translated into English in 1729). This was followed by Opticks in 1704; a revised edition in Latin appeared in 1706. Posthumously published writings include The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), The System of the World (1728), the first draft of Book III of the Principia, and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733).
WHEN & WHERE:
On January 4, 1643, Isaac Newton was born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. On March 31, 1727, Newton died in London.
- Newton has been regarded for almost 300 years as the founding examplar of modern physical science, his achievements in experimental investigation being as innovative as those in mathematical research. With equal, if not greater, energy and originality he also plunged into chemistry, the early history of Western civilization, and theology; among his special studies was an investigation of the form and dimensions, as described in the Bible, of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
- Famous Isaac Newton quotes include: "Plato is my friend - Aristotle is my friend - but my greatest friend is truth."
- "I can calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people."
- Newton’s three laws of motion relate the forces acting on a body to its motion. The first is the law of inertia, it states that ‘every object in motion will stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force’. The second is commonly stated as ‘force equals mass times acceleration’, or F = ma. The third and final law is commonly known as ‘to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’.
- Newton was notorious for his bad temper and conflicts with other people. In particular Hooke and Leibinz.
- After the death of his mother in 1678, Newton entered six years of intellectual seclusion where he only communicated with the briefest notes.
- It is claimed Newton’s discovered the theory of gravity after watching an apple fall in the orchard.
- Newton was fascinated with religion, though didn’t hold orthodox views. He wrote an article on textual criticism of the Bible.
- Newton was interested in the new wave of philosophy becoming known in the Western world. He became an acquaintance of political philosopher John Locke.
- In 1696, Newton was appointed warden of the Royal Mint. He took his duties very seriously, seeking to prevent corruption.