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Isaac Newton

1642 - 1727, Woolstrope, Lincolnshire, England

by Dinoj Surendran (*)

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principal papers
Principles of natural philosophy

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Achievement

Mathematics and theory on gravity

 

Biography

Once upon a time, in a place that no one has ever heard of --- Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England --- a tiny lump of flesh entered the world. It was named Isaac after its father, who had died three months before. But its mother remarried and abandoned it to the care of grandparents till the lump was eleven (and worthy of a human pronoun).

At school Isaac was a strange boy, interested in constructing mechanical devices of his own design, such as kites, sundials, waterclocks and so on. He was curious about the world around him but showed no signs of unusual brightness. He seemed rather slow in his studies until well into his teens and apparently began to stretch himself only to beat the class bully who happened, strangely enough, to be first in studies as well.

In the late 1650's he was taken out of school to help on his mother's farm, where he proved to be a serious candidate for the title of world's worst farmer. His uncle, a member of Trinity College detected the scholar in the young man and urged that he be sent to Cambridge. His family was not rich and he would have to support himself by doing menial tasks for the lecturers in the college. He was prepared to do so, and thus entered varsity at the perfectly normal age of 18 and became a equally perfectly normal graduate five years later.

The plague hit London and he retired to his mum's farm to remain out of danger. There is little record of whether he tried to become a farmer again, but who cares - he had already worked out the binomial theorem and was also developing glimpses of what was later to become the calculus.

At his mother's farm, something greater happened. Whether it happened in reality or in some writer's (possibly Newton himself) imagination is open to question, but it is said that he saw an apple fall and, after deciding it was too good a fruit to waste, gobbled it up and forgot about it. But he didn't forget about the question he asked himself while his gastronomic juices engulfed the second most famous apple in history: ``Why did the damned thing fall? (It could have hit me!)''

So, just as you and I wonder when the Tories will get back into power, he began to wonder if the same force that pulled the apple downward could have anything to do with the moon's inexplicable fondness for staying near the earth.

He began by calculating the speed the moon needed to remain in its orbit; he was 12% out for reasons which have never been explained satisfactorily to this day (My reason: he didn't own a calculator) and temporarily dumped this work. He worked on optics instead and his first published work was a brilliant summary of a series of brilliant experiments. His childhood fancy for making things had paid off! It won him considerable fame and he returned to Cambridge to become a maths lecturer, becoming a professor when the incumbent Dr Barrow magnanimously resigned in his favour.

The good thing about being a highly vaunted prof in a rich university is that you don't have to give any lectures (remember Carl Sagan at Cornell, anyone?) - Newton operated on the higly taxing schedule of eight boring ones a year. He spent the rest of the year eating, sleeping, chatting with friends, not watching TV, researching stuff and thinking in general.

One could almost say that Newton set the precedent for the stereotype of the forgetful maths professor. In one story, he had invited a bunch of friends to his house for dinner. They had the meal and then went to the lounge. After about an hour, Newton jumped up and said ``We've talked long enough --- let's have dinner!'' It was only when he found plenty of bones and other leftovers on the dining table that he remembered, to his great embarassment, that they had already eaten.

He was elected to the Royal Society in 1672 and promptly delivered a paper on his optical experiments. He thus incurred the jealous wrath of Robert Hooke (of Hooke's Law fame) and started a lifelong feud . Newton wasn't a very mature guy and was petty and childish in his reaction to others, especially criticism. When someone offended him, he deleted all references to their names in his papers (something very serious in the world of academics). He never married either - I'm not sure if that was because he didn't want to or because no woman was insane enough to live with him...

This gave rise 250 years later to the unflattering statement by the writer Aldous Huxley: "If we evolved a race of Isaac Newtons, that would not be progress. For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb."

Newton and the German diplomat Liebnitz developed the calculus independently and at about the same time. It was an idea that was in the air and certainly no-one stole it from the other. However, Newton thought (after some persuasion by some overpatriotic sections of the British Press) Liebnitz had stolen his ideas and went on a long crusade putting down the hapless German. That's all I shall say on the greatest contreversy in mathematics.

In 1687 (when he was 45), after 18 months of being urged on by Edmund Halley (of cometary fame), he published his Principles of natural philosophy. In it he laid out the calculus and followed on immediately with his famous three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation (to which he had returned after 15 long years). Though his notation was clumsy and was later replaced by that of Leibnitz (for example the dy/dx notation is due to Liebnitz; Newton would have written that as x with a dot on top), this book is undoubtedly the greatest single scientific work of all time.

Newton also developed a new form of telescope, spent endless hours on (unsuccessful) alchemy in an effort to produce genuine artificial gold and speculated in over half a million words in print on some of the more abstract passages in the Bible (he was very religious).

In 1689, having defended (quietly but effectively) the rights of Cambridge University against the unpopular James II, he was elected to parliament after James had been bumped off the throne. Here is a modified (my history of maths prof ordered me to put that word in!) transcript of the only speech he gave in his few years in parliament.

He stood.
The entire house fell silent.
The great man was about to speak.
He opened his mouth.
Everyone opened theirs in expectation.

"Excuse me, you lot, but would someone mind closing the window? There's a bit of a draft this side and my wig may fall off."

He sat down.

There is no record of what the general reaction was, or if anyone actually closed the window.

He suffered a mental breakdown at 50 and was never quite the same, though he was still a brilliant mathematician. Five years later he was appointed Master of the Royal Mint, a job he threw himself into with considerable improvement to the country and hardship to counterfeiters. He was an excellent administrator. He still had energy when he came back home though - he once returned to find the problem of the brachistochrone waiting --- he had supper, solved it, slept, sent it off to the questioner the next morning and went to work.

Robert Hooke died in 1703, and Isaac celebrated by publishing his "Optics" in English, a task he had put off while his enemy was alive. He was elected president of the Royal Society and was elected each year thereafter until he kicked the bucket 24 years later at the grand old age of 84. He relished the role of President to the point of tyranny, and was happiest when encouraging younger scientists.

He was knighted in 1705. (I'm saying that for completeness, though I guess being knighted in those days was worth more than it is today)

Newton was respected in his lifetime as almost no other scientist before or after. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with the country's heroes, and the inscription on his tomb reads "Mortals! Rejoice at so great an ornament to the human race!"

Before I go, I better clear up one misconception about Newton. The words "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants..." are often quoted as an expression of his humility. Not so! These words were in an open letter to Hooke, and the unsaid implication was "...and you my dear Hooke, have not".

Alexander Pope's eulogy for him said:

"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night
God said "Let Newton be!"
And all was light.

 

But is Newton as important as he once was? Yes, I think so. But his theories have been extended/damaged by Einstein, prompting a Sir John Collings Squire to say

"But the devil shouting "Ho!'
Said "Let Einstein be!"
And restored the status quo."

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