British Science Week: Heroes of Science – Issac Newton

Often considered the father of modern-day physics, Sir Isaac Newton is one of the most influential scientists of all time

British Science Week: Heroes of Science - Issac Newton
Newton described the dispersion of white light by a prism in Opticks

Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist who laid down the foundations of modern-day classical mechanics. The core of this was his description of universal gravitation and clarifying the existing three laws of motion, which he brought together under one system. This achievement allowed Newton to demonstrate that the motions of celestial bodies were dictated by a single set of universal laws, radically shifting scientific thought away from heliocentrism – the idea of the Sun being at the centre of the universe – and setting the stage for Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity over 200 years later.

Newton was born on 4 January 1643 in Lincolnshire, England. He attended the King’s School in Grantham, Lincolnshire, from the age of 12 and later, in 1661, was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, in a work-study position. Cambridge at the time was still basing much of its scientific and mathematical teachings on Aristotle, however due to Newton’s widespread reading of many modern thinkers, the university was slowly introducing the ideas of Descartes, Kepler and Galileo. He left Cambridge in 1665 with a degree and spent the next two years formulating his theories on calculus, optics and gravitation.

Following this work, Newton became increasingly interested in optics, with him lecturing on the subject between 1670 and 1672. It was during this period that he developed the Newtonian telescope (the world’s first functional reflecting specimen), which he presented to the Royal Society alongside an investigation into the refraction of light. He proceeded to conduct much work into the nature and properties of light over the next 30 years, which would culminate in the publication of his 1704 text Opticks.

Prior to that, in 1687, Newton published his groundbreaking book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (ie Mathematical Principles Of Natural Philosophy) – which outlined his laws of motion, universal gravitation and a derivation of Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Even though Newton’s genius had been noted prior to the publication of this seminal text, its success established him within the wider scientific society. Indeed, as a result of this work, he would not only be welcomed into the Royal Society, but also knighted by Queen Anne – only the second scientist to have been awarded the title at this time. Following a wider print run and subsequent editions, Newton acquired a keen circle of admirers including Edmond Halley and Nicolas Fatio de Duillier.

In his later life Newton continued his work in mathematics, astronomy and optics, however also took up the post of warden and then master of the Royal Mint, where he oversaw a great re-coining of the nation’s currency. In addition, in 1703 Newton was elected president of the Royal Society and an associate of the French Académie des Sciences. Newton died in his sleep in London on 31 March 1727.

The big idea

Illustration of Sir Isaac Newton holding apple in hand and looking up at tree
Arguably Newton’s most important theory was that of universal gravitation, although the “apple tree” story is regarded as a common myth…

Newton’s 1687 Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica laid out much of today’s classical mechanics, but arguably its most important theory was that of universal gravitation. Newton’s law states that any particle of matter in the universe attracts any other with a force varying directly as the product of the masses and inversely as the square of the distance between them. This notion drew together the logically independent laws of motion set out by Johannes Kepler decades before, which since his death had been accepted but not related to causality, and led to an accurate – even by modern standards – description of how planets, moons and comets move through space. Newton’s law has since been succeeded by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which allows systems to be described with far greater accuracy – especially when they are very large.

Top 5 facts: The life and times of Sir Isaac Newton

Biblical

Despite Newton’s great scientific achievements, he actually wrote more on biblical hermeneutics and occult studies than science. He was a lifelong, if unorthodox, Christian.

Knighthood

Newton was only the second scientist in history to be knighted, which he was awarded in 1705. His coat of arms was a shield with two crossed shinbones.

Minted

Newton was warden of the Royal Mint during the Great Recoinage of 1696. During his time at the Royal Mint he successfully prosecuted 28 forgers for creating illegal currency.

Apocalypse

In 1704 Newton attempted to glean scientific information from the Bible. From what he extracted from the religious text he predicted that the end of the world would come no earlier than 2060.

Mercury

After Newton’s death in 1727 his hair was found to contain high levels of mercury, indicating he had suffered mercury poisoning.

 

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