ISAAC NEWTON (1642–1727)


Newton was born in the village of Woolsthorpe, England. His father died before he was born and his mother raised him on the family farm. As a youth he showed little evidence of his later brilliance, except for an unusual talent with mechanical devices—he apparently built a working water clock and a toy flour mill powered by a mouse. In 1661 he entered Trinity College in Cambridge with a deficiency in geometry. Fortunately, Newton caught the eye of Isaac Barrow, a gifted mathematician and teacher. Under Barrow’s guidance Newton immersed himself in mathematics and science, but he graduated without any special distinction. Because the bubonic plague was spreading rapidly through London, Newton returned to his home in Woolsthorpe and stayed there during the years of 1665 and 1666. In those two momentous years the entire framework of modern science was miraculously created in Newton’s mind. He discovered calculus, recognized the underlying principles of planetary motion and gravity, and determined that “white” sunlight was composed of all colors, red to violet. For whatever reasons he kept his discoveries to himself. In 1667 he returned to Cambridge to obtain his Master’s degree and upon graduation became a teacher at Trinity. Then in 1669 Newton succeeded his teacher, Isaac Barrow, to the Lucasian chair of mathematics at Trinity, one of the most honored chairs of mathematics in the world.

Thereafter, brilliant discoveries flowed from Newton steadily. He formulated the law of gravitation and used it to explain the motion of the moon, the planets, and the tides; he formulated basic theories of light, thermodynamics, and hydrodynamics; and he devised and constructed the first modern reflecting telescope. Throughout his life Newton was hesitant to publish his major discoveries, revealing them only to a select circle of friends, perhaps because of a fear of criticism or controversy. In 1687, only after intense coaxing by the astronomer, Edmond Halley (discoverer of Halley’s comet), did Newton publish his masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). This work is generally considered to be the most important and influential scientific book ever written. In it Newton explained the workings of the solar system and formulated the basic laws of motion, which to this day are fundamental in engineering and physics. However, not even the pleas of his friends could convince Newton to publish his discovery of calculus. Only after Leibniz published his results did Newton relent and publish his own work on calculus. After twenty-five years as a professor, Newton suffered depression and a nervous breakdown. He gave up research in 1695 to accept a position as warden and later master of the London mint. During the twenty-five years that he worked at the mint, he did virtually no scientific or mathematical work. He was knighted in 1705 and on his death was buried in Westminster Abbey with all the honors his country could bestow. It is interesting to note that Newton was a learned theologian who viewed the primary value of his work to be its support of the existence of God. Throughout his life he worked passionately to date biblical events by relating them to astronomical phenomena. He was so consumed with this passion that he spent years searching the Book of Daniel for clues to the end of the world and the geography of hell. Newton described his brilliant accomplishments as follows:

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

–CALCULUS: Early Transcendentals 9.E




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