Sir Isaac Newton was an English mathematician and physicist, considered one of the greatest scientists in history. He made important contributions to many fields of science. His discoveries and theories laid the foundation for much of the progress in science.
Newton was one of the inventors of mathematics called calculus. He also solved the mysteries of light and optics, formulated the three laws of motion, and derived the law of universal gravitation. Newton was born on December 25, 1642, at Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. When he was three years old, he was put in the care of his grandmother. He was then sent to grammar school in Grantham and later attended Trinity College at the University of Cambridge.
Newton ignored much of the established curriculum of the university to pursue his own interests: mathematics and natural philosophy. He investigated the latest developments in mathematics and the new natural philosophy that treated nature as a complicated machine entirely on his own. Almost immediately, still under the age of 25, he made fundamental discoveries that were instrumental in his career in science. Newton’s first achievement in mathematics was the Fluxional Method. He generalized the methods that were being used to draw tangents to curves and to calculate the area swept by curves.
He recognized that the two procedures were inverse operations. By joining them in what he called the fluxional method, Newton developed a kind of mathematics known as calculus in 1666. Calculus was a new and powerful method that elevated modern mathematics above the level of Greek geometry. Optics was another area of Newton’s early interests. In trying to explain how colors occur, he arrived at the idea that sunlight is a heterogeneous blend of different colors, each of which represents a different color. Reflections and refractions cause colors to appear by separating the blend into its components.
Newton demonstrated his theory of colors by passing a beam of sunlight through a type of prism, which split the beam into separate colors. In August 1684, Newton was visited by Edmund Halley, the British astronomer and mathematician, who discussed with Newton the problem of orbital motion. Newton had also pursued the science of mechanics as an undergraduate, and at that time, he had already entertained basic notions about universal gravitation. As a result of Halley’s visit, Newton returned to these studies. During the next three years, Newton established the modern science of dynamics by formulating his three laws of motion. Newton applied these laws to Kepler’s laws of orbital motion and derived the law of universal gravitation.
Newton is probably best known for discovering universal gravitation, which explains that all bodies in space and on earth are affected by the force called gravity. He published this theory in his book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or Principia, in 1687. This book marked a turning point in the history of science. It also ensured that its author could never regain his privacy. The Principia’s appearance also involved Newton in an unpleasant episode with the English philosopher and physicist, Robert Hooke.
In 1687, Hooke claimed that Newton had stolen a central idea from him: that bodies attract each other with a force that varies inversely as the square of their distance. However, most historians do not accept Hooke’s charge of plagiarism. The following four years were filled with intense activity for Newton. With the success of the Principia, he tried to put all his earlier achievements into a final written form. In the summer of 1693, Newton showed symptoms of a severe emotional disorder. Although he regained his health, his creative period had come to an end.
Sir Isaac Newton made great discoveries that left us with a unified system of laws that can be applied to a wide range of physical phenomena. These applications allowed Newton to predict the precise motion of the stars and planets around the sun. Newton’s book, the Principia, is still recognized as the greatest scientific book ever written. And no, an apple never hit him on the head.