Sir Isaac Newton
Posted: 28 October 2010 in Scientists
Tags: astronomy, cambridge, gravitation, heliocentric, physicist
Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642. His father, who had been a fairly wealthy farmer, had died three months previously. His mother remarried when he was two years old, and left him in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough. Newton resented being abandoned by his mother, and threatened to burn down the house of his mother and her new husband; a threat he was later to recount as one of his childhood sins (he was a deeply religious man).

When he was twelve Newton was sent to school in nearby Grantham, and showed no particular promise as a student. Following the death of her second husband, his mother withdrew him from school, with the idea that she would make a farmer out of Newton, and that he would continue in the the family line of business. But it transpired that, if there was one thing the young Newton was not, it was a farmer, and following the intercession of either the headmaster of Grantham grammar school, or of an uncle (depending upon who you believe) he was allowed to return to school.

In 1661 he entered Trinity College Cambridge as a sizar. A sizar was a student who received a small grant out of college funds, but who was in return expected to undertake menial tasks on behalf of other students and academic staff. His actual lifestyle during this time suggests that he had other funds available to him, apart from his college grant; his uncle being the most likely source of those funds.

At the time of his arrival in Cambridge the geo-centric view of the universe (which Galileo had got into so much trouble for denying) was still very far from extinct in academic circles, and it was the view officially held by the university. Newton’s later work was finally to kill off geo-centricism. Nevertheless, whilst at Cambridge, Newton did get the chance to read the works of Galileo, Kepler and others. In 1664 Newton was elected a scholar, which made available to him a more generous grant than hitherto. But in 1665 the great plague arrived in Britain, and the university closed for the duration of the crisis. Newton returned home, and during the next two years the ideas which were to make him famous began to germinate.

It is Newton himself who is the origin of the story about an apple falling, and that being the catalyst for his ideas about gravitation, but in his version of the story there is no mention of it hitting him on the head. Gravitation was an already accepted scientific fact, but Newton’s genius was to realise that the force which was pulling the apple to the ground was also the force which kept the moon in orbit around the earth. He was also responsible for proposing the inverse square law of gravitation. Up until that time it had been supposed that gravity was a force which only operated close to the earth’s surface, and there was no thought that it might reach as far out as the moon. However, Newton calculated what the orbit of the moon ought to be if his ideas were correct, and the result of his calculation turned out to coincide exactly with Kepler’s observations. Similar calculations soon revealed that the motion of the other planet’s could be predicted by applying Newton’s ideas, and the helio-centric view of the universe was finally established beyond any possibility of doubt.

Woolsthorpe Manor

Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's boyhood home.

In 1665 the University of Cambridge reopened, and Newton was made a Fellow of Trinity College two years later. In theory this development should have required Newton to become ordained to the Anglican priesthood. Although Newton was deeply religious, his theology was also deeply unorthodox, and, had his anti-Trinitarian views been more widely known, they would have been regarded as highly heretical. For this reason he was reluctant to become ordained, but there was no deadline for the ordination, so he was able to put it off indefinitely. The problem was more acute in 1669, when he was appointed to the Lucasian chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post later to be held by Stephen Hawking). Normally there would have been no possibility of avoiding ordination at this point, but, thanks to his growing prestige, Newton was able to obtain a special exemption from King Charles II, who had been responsible for creating the chair in the first place.

Newton’s work on the theory of gravitation required him to simultaneously develop a whole new branch of mathematics which is today known as the Differential and Integral Calculus (Newton called it fluxions). It just so happened that, around about the same time, the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz was having thoughts along very similar lines. Their published work is sufficiently dissimilar for it to be the general consensus today that neither man plagiarised the other, and that it is just one of the coincidences of history that they came up with fundamentally the same idea more or less simultaneously. But that didn’t prevent the two men from spending the rest of their lives accusing one another of plagiarism; at least until the death of Leibniz in 1716.

It was mentioned above that Newton was a deeply religious man, and the volume of his writings on theology actually exceeds that of his scientific and mathematical output combined. If he is not today known as a theologian, it is because his views were, both then and now, regarded as outrageously heretical. One of the things Newton did not appreciate during his lifetime was that, in the seventeenth century just as much as the twenty first, there were people popping up all the time to proclaim that the end of the world was nigh. So, after studying the Bible, he wrote a paper in which he attempted to demonstrate that the end of the world would arrive no sooner than 2060. His hope was that this would shut the enthusiasts up. In 2003 that made the front page of a British newspaper as, Newton set 2060 for end of world, and caused a storm in a teacup for a little while – mainly because of the modern idea that no self respecting scientist could possibly be religious.

Newton was made Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, and Master of the Royal Mint in 1699. These positions were traditionally regarded as sinecures, producing a useful income in exchange for very little work. But Newton took the positions seriously, and was responsible for recalling the coinage then in circulation, and replacing them with coins which had milled edges. The intention was to frustrate the (illegal) practice of removing small quantities of silver from the edge of coins without detection. Clip enough coins in that way, and the criminal would soon have quite a bit of precious silver at his disposal. He was also responsible for tracking down, and bringing to trial forgers. At the time forging coin of the realm was a capital offence, and he did not need to bring many prosecutions before forging coins became a less popular pastime amongst the criminal fraternity.

Newton was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. He died in his sleep on 31 March 1727. An autopsy revealed him to have large quantities of mercury in his body, and that may have been responsible for his death. The probable explanation for that is that he inhaled fumes of mercury during his alchemical experiments. For us today, the reason that base metal cannot be transmuted into gold is well known, but in Newton’s day the attempt to transmute base metals into gold was a legitimate scientific enquiry.


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