Mentor Yourself With Isaac Newton, English Physicist, Mathematician
Contributing factors to success is ongoing learning and reading broadly. Sir Isaac Newton had those attributes, and he was curious and loved to experiment as well. From a young age he was building things such as sundials, water clocks and windmills. He found the answer to gravity from nature when he saw an apple falling from a tree on his family’s farm.
Name: Isaac Newton
Birth Date: December 1642 – March 1727
Job Functions: Professor, Physicist & Mathematician
Fields: Physics, Mathematics
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Isaac Newton was born on Christmas day in 1642 in Lincolnshire, England as a premature baby who was not expected to live. His father had died three months before he was born, and when Newton was three, his mother remarried and left him with his grandfather. While he attended King’s School, a grammar school, he lived in the house of an apothecary. As a young lad, Newton had an interest in mechanical things and made windmills, water clocks, kites and sundials.
In 1661, he entered Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, which focused on Plato and Aristotle and traditional disciplines such as logic, rhetoric and chronology. Newton read widely in mathematics and mechanics. Newton read works of Italian astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Gailileo Galilei, English physicist and chemist, Robert Boyle, German scientist, Johannes Kepler, Greek scientist, Euclid, and Rene Descartes’ Geometry (The Geometry of Rene Descartes). Descartes’ work inspired Newton to do original work in mathematics.
Like most innovators and inventors who shaped our world, Newton kept notebooks where he scribbled notes documenting his thoughts, ideas, queries and questions. “There are several articles on angular sections and the squaring of curves, several calculations about musical notes, geometrical problems from Franciscus Vieta and Frans Van Schooten, annotations out of John Wallis’ The Arithmetic of Infinitesimals: John Wallis 1656 (Sources and Studies in the History of Mathematics and Physical Sciences), together with observations on refractions, on the grinding of spherical optic glasses, on the errors of lenses, and on the extractions of all kinds of roots.” His professor of mathematics, Isaac Barrow always encouraged him. Around the same time of acquiring his Bachelor’s degree in 1665, Newton generalized the Binomial Theorem and made notes on his discovery of “method of fluxions.”
Newton’s life took off when the Great Bubonic Plague spread from London to Cambridge and the university had to close down in 1665. He went back to his family’s farm in Lincolnshire where his intellectual pace skyrocketed and he did some of his most seminal work for the next two years. Newton conducted experiments in optics and chemistry and his mathematical speculations. Newton finished developing calculus, providing a new and effective way for mathematicians to solve problems relating to curves and rates of change. He conducted refraction experiments using a prism of glass and observed that it refracted into a spectrum, which confirmed the heterogeneous nature of light.
Newton conducted the experiments because he wanted to improve the effectiveness of telescopes. His discoveries led him to conclude that greater accuracy could not be attained using the refractive principle. Newton turned his attention to earlier suggestions made by investigators about a reflective telescope. But at that time, no one had ever tested such a telescope. Accustomed to building mechanical things, Newton built several models in which the image was viewed in a concave mirror through an eyepiece in the side of the tube.
One evening, during the same period away from the University of Cambridge, Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, which provided a critical clue to his understanding of universal gravitation. It was also during that time that he started to delve into alchemy.
When the University of Cambridge was opened in 1667, Newton was elected a Fellow of Trinity College. The following year he attained his Master’s of Art degree, and in 1669, at age 26, he was appointed a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. In 1668, Newton had built the first working reflecting telescope. In 1671, Barrow took a specially made copy of Newton’s reflecting telescope, which created an instant sensation. On that basis, Newton was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1672.
Bolstered by the success, Newton decided to submit a paper in 1672 on his optical discoveries to the Royal Society, which was published in their Philosophical Transactions. He found himself embroiled in controversy when scientists Robert Hooke and Christian Huygens voiced their scepticism and bitter opposition. Other readers of the paper claimed that they couldn’t replicate the paper’s experiments. Newton tried to answer objections with further explanation, but it proved pointless to do so, and Newton vowed that he would never publish again.
Part of Newton’s requirements of his Trinity fellowship required that he be ordained by 1675. In the early 1670s Newton conducted comprehensive research on early church doctrine and history. This research led him to conclude that “the doctrine of Trinity was not a part of the primitive Christian faith. As an anti-Trinitarian heretic, Newton could not become an Anglican clergyman in good faith.” He was set to resign his fellowship in 1675 when Charles II permitted Lucasian Professors to retain their College Fellowships without ordination.
Astronomer Edmund Halley, scientist, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren independently came to some notion of the law of gravity, but were having difficulty in explaining the orbits of the planet. In 1684, Halley consulted Newton on the problem only to discover to his amazement that he had already solved it. Newton submitted to him four theorems and seven problems, which proved to be the nucleus of his major work. Halley persuaded Newton to put together all his work on the law of motion into what became Principia, which was first published in Latin in 1687. In about eighteen months during 1685 and 1686, Newton wrote the Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World or Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Halley believed so much in Newton’s work that he underwrote the cost to publish.
In the years following Newton’s election to the Royal Society, the thinking of his peers and other scholars started to shift to the lines similar to those which he had taken and they were now more open to him. These scientists were now more open to Newton’s law of motion, and Principia created excitement throughout Europe. In 1689, Christian Huygens travelled from the Netherlands to England to personally meet Newton. Principia was difficult for even the sharpest minds to follow. From its publication, to Newton’s death, many dedicated a lot of time to simplifying and better explaining Newton’s ideas outlined in Principia.
After publishing Principia, Newton became more interested in university politics, and was elected parliamentary member for Cambridge. He left the university in 1695 to work as Warden of the Mint. His friends Locke, Wren and Lord Halifax helped him to secure the position, and four years later Newton was made Master of the Mint.
For the last 30 years of his life, Newton produced little original work. In 1704, Newton published Opticks (Great Minds Series), mainly a collection of his earlier research work, which he revised. For this book, he published it in English rather than Latin so it reached a larger audience. The way Newton presented Optiks also made the book more approachable and the wider appeal. Optiks was mainly experiments Newton conducted and the conclusions he drew, and he concluded the text with queries such as “Do not Bodies act upon Light at a distance, and by their action bend its rays?”
Newton was also engaged in a dispute with German mathematician Gotttfried von Leibniz over the invention of calculus. “A modern analysis of the notes of Newton and Leibniz clearly established that Newton secretly developed calculus some years before Leibniz published his version but that Leibniz independently developed the calculus so often credited to Newton.” The controversy started in 1699 when Fatio de Duillier accused Newton of plagiarism against Leibniz, which continued for about 20 years even after the death of Leibniz in 1716.
It’s been shown time and time again that scientist independently come up with the same ideas. That’s why it’s important to publish works, which is a paper trail. Most inventors build on the works of others, which means that independently, scientists could be reading the same background works which trigger similar thoughts. Newton had vastly influenced science and his work is rivalled only by Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.
Isaac Newton’s Steps to Success
- When Newton studied difficult works that he didn’t understand, he referred to other works to aid in his understanding.
- Newton was very curious.
- Newton kept notebooks where he scribbled notes documenting his thoughts, ideas, queries and questions.
- During Great Bubonic Plague, Newton finished developing calculus, providing a new and effective way for mathematicians to solve problems relating to curves and rates of change.
- Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, which provided a critical clue to his understanding of universal gravitation.
- In 1668, Newton had built the first working reflecting telescope.
Why Isaac Newton’s Contribution Matters
Isaac Newton made a significant contribution to mathematics and physics.
Lessons from Isaac Newton
- Have the curiosity of a child.
- Document and publish your work for others to build on.
- Keep on producing work that matters.
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