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Happy Birthday, Sir Isaac Newton, Mathematician and Physicist

January 04, 2010
by Rachel Balik
Physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton was one of the most influential figures of the scientific revolution. He made significant contributions to the mathematical discipline of calculus and his theories on motion and gravitational forces laid the foundation for the field of modern physics.

Early Days

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Although his birth was recorded as occurring on Christmas Day, an adjustment to the new calendar in the 17th century makes his birthday January 4, 1643. Newton’s father died three months before he was born, and his mother quickly remarried a wealthy man. A byproduct of her nuptials was that she left her young son with his grandmother in Woolsthorpe, England and moved to a neighboring town, where she raised three children with her new husband. Biography.com notes the belief that Newton’s childhood abandonment produced the neurosis and insecurity that plagued him throughout his life. Eventually, his mother was widowed again and she returned to her eldest son, seeking his help in managing the estate she had inherited.

Fortunately for the future of science, Newtown was inept in affairs of the land and returned to school to prepare for university. He ultimately earned a full scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. After studying there for four years, a plague epidemic forced him to return home. It was while studying outside of school that he first began to focus on understanding gravitation and optics.

Notable Accomplishments

The first of Newton’s remarkable discoveries that he shared with the public was the reflecting telescope, which used a mirror to sharpen the image. By that time, Newton had already been developing various scientific and mathematical theories, but was often hesitant to publish his work; insecurity about the quality of his writing would plague Newton throughout his career.

Newton’s classic, three-volume work, “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”) was published in 1687, and contained some of his most famous contributions to physics. The ubiquitous myth about Newton is that an apple falling from a tree helped him to realize that gravity pulled matter towards the earth. The Principia included several important calculations of gravitational forces, and also included his three laws of motion.

Newton was the first to introduce the idea that white light comprised many different colors. The theory was widely challenged, and as a result, Newton delayed publishing his work out of fear of criticism. “Opticks” did not appear until 1704, at which point many of his critics were dead.

Along with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Newton is credited with developing calculus. The two mathematicians and their disciples spent years in a heated dispute about who had invented calculus.  A paper written for the Rutgers University math department suggests that although it is clear that the two scientists invented calculus independently of each other, much of the drama can be attributed to the volatile personalities of the two geniuses.

Newton also added studies in alchemy, chemistry, theology and philosophy to his achievements. He spent several years as a professor at Cambridge. The second (and most famous) holder of the Lucasian Chair for Mathematics, he was also twice elected MP for Cambridge University. Despite a series of tumultuous relationships with his colleagues, by the turn of the century, he was comfortably esteemed by the scientific community and the public, receiving a number of honors, including a knighthood in 1705.

The Rest of the Story

Newton continued to publish and work in the Royal Society until his death on March 31, 1727. Most of his work in later years involved reworking his previous publications. Even without producing new material, he proved quite prolific in bolstering the credibility of his previous work.

The largest and most comprehensive collection of Newton’s manuscripts is held by the Cambridge University Library. Although subsequent discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries superseded various aspects of Newton’s theories in physics, he enjoyed prominence in the field for more than a hundred years, and many of his contributions continue to be studied and highly valued today.
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