Isaac Newton
1642 - 1727

Sir Isaac Newton has been described by some as "one of the greatest names in human thought" (Cohen, 1985). Newton was responsible for discovering many outstanding scientific and mathematical concepts. Among those discoveries were his theories of motion and gravitation, the components of light and color and his development of the foundations of calculus. There were many interesting aspects of Newtons life which seemed at times to contradict each other.

Newton, was born on Christmas day in 1642 to a family of farmers in the east central portion of England in Linconshire. Surprisingly young Isaac was not an exceptional student. He enjoyed spending much of his time making contraptions such as a windmill used to grind grain, a clock which was powered by water and other various inventions. Unfortunately because of the time he spent on his projects he did very poorly in school. His teachers described him as "idle" and "inattentive". His father died before he was born and mother remarried leaving him in the care of his grandmother. At the age of fourteen Newton was forced to leave school to help his mother with farming.

Isaac spent much of his time on the farm reading and ended up returning to school. At the bidding of an uncle, Newton began furthering his education in June of 1661, when he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. He set out to get a degree in law and this limited his field of study was very during his first few years of college. However, by the third year he was allowed more freedom to pursue other interests. During this time he was able to study new mathematical and scientific methods from such scientists and mathematicians as Galileo, and Wallis. Newton graduated from Cambridge in 1665, without any particular honors.

In the summer of 1665, Newton who had not been an exceptional student and appeared at times very average, seemed to under go a change. During an eighteen month period, in which the school he was at was shut down because of the plague, Newton came up with his theories of motion and gravitation, the components of white light, and calculus. The often told story of how Newton discovered gravity goes as follows: Newton was drinking tea as the British often do, and he observed an apple falling from a tree. He deduced that the same force which caused the apple to fall to the ground causes the moon to orbit the earth (Cohen, 1985). As stated earlier, Newton helped developed what he called fluxions, which is now called calculus ( Burton, 1997). This branch of mathematics Newton discovered, could be used find the answers to such problems as finding the speed of a ball that has been thrown in the air at any moment in the balls flight. During the same time period a German mathematician named Gottfried Leibniz also discovered calculus. With Newtons's and Leibniz's new discoveries mathematicians and scientists were able to enter into new regions of discovery.

As if that wasn't enough Newton made a third important discovery. He used a prism to show that white light is made up of many different colors. Before this scientists had thought that white light was a single entity. While Isaac was looking through a telescope, one day he noted how the light reflected many different colors and led him to this discovery.

Newton was very sensitive to negative comments and had to be convinced by another scientist Edmond Halley to publish his findings. After his book Principia Mathematica in which his various discoveries and ideas were presented, Newton enjoyed success in other realms. He became a member of the British Parliament and was a member of various mathematical organizations such as the Royal Society council to which he was later elected president. He died on March 31, 1727 in London.

Newton had many interesting characteristics such as his study alchemy. Which is a blend of chemistry, magic and religion. Achlemists' goal was to find a way to produce gold out of different metals and also to find a magic potion which could cure ills and increase ones life. Isaac was modest, and generous to his family and those who helped him along the way. Some of Newton's discoveries were later refuted by Albert Einstein in reference to his theories of gravitational pull. However, Einstein and others still contend that Newton was indeed a very important force in man's quest for knowledge and is highly regarded for his contributions in many different areas of science.

Contributed by Chris Pinaire

References:

  1. Burton, D. (1997). The history of mathematics, an introduction, McGraw-Hill New York.
  2. Cohen, B. (1985) Sir Isaac Newton.The World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago.
  3. Ihde, A. (1985) Alchemy. The World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago.
  4. oz.plymouth.edu/~biology/history/newton.html (1999)
  5. riceinfo.rice.edu/armadillo/Rice/Resources/math.html (1999)

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