Sir Isaac Newton, (born December 25, 1642 [January 4, 1643, New Style], Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England—died March 20 [March 31], 1727, London), English physicist and mathematician, who was the culminating figure of the scientific revolution of the 17th century.
In optics, his discovery of the composition of white light integrated the phenomena of colours into the science of light and laid the foundation for modern physical optics. In mechanics, his three laws of motion, the basic principles of modern physics, resulted in the formulation of the law of universal gravitation.
In mathematics, he was the original discoverer of the infinitesimal calculus. Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687) was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.
Born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Newton was the only son of a local yeoman, also Isaac Newton, who had died three months before, and of Hannah Ayscough.
That same year, at Arcetri near Florence, Galileo Galilei had died; Newton would eventually pick up his idea of a mathematical science of motion and bring his work to full fruition. A tiny and weak baby, Newton was not expected to survive his first day of life, much less 84 years.
Deprived of a father before birth, he soon lost his mother as well, for within two years she married a second time; her husband, the well-to-do minister Barnabas Smith, left young Isaac with his grandmother and moved to a neighbouring village to raise a son and two daughters.
For nine years, until the death of Barnabas Smith in 1653, Isaac was effectively separated from his mother, and his pronounced psychotic tendencies have been ascribed to this traumatic event. That he hated his stepfather we may be sure.
When he examined the state of his soul in 1662 and compiled a catalog of sins in shorthand, he remembered “Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.”
The acute sense of insecurity that rendered him obsessively anxious when his work was published and irrationally violent when he defended it accompanied Newton throughout his life and can plausibly be traced to his early years.
After his mother was widowed a second time, she determined that her first-born son should manage her now considerable property. It quickly became apparent, however, that this would be a disaster, both for the estate and for Newton.
He could not bring himself to concentrate on rural affairs—set to watch the cattle, he would curl up under a tree with a book. Fortunately, the mistake was recognized, and Newton was sent back to the grammar school in Grantham, where he had already studied, to prepare for the university.
As with many of the leading scientists of the age, he left behind in Grantham anecdotes about his mechanical ability and his skill in building models of machines, such as clocks and windmills.
At the school he apparently gained a firm command of Latin but probably received no more than a smattering of arithmetic. By June 1661, he was ready to matriculate at Trinity College, Cambridge, somewhat older than the other undergraduates because of his interrupted education.
Influence of the scientific revolution
When Newton arrived in Cambridge in 1661, the movement now known as the scientific revolution was well advanced, and many of the works basic to modern science had appeared. Astronomers from Copernicus to Kepler had elaborated the heliocentric system of the universe.
Galileo had proposed the foundations of a new mechanics built on the principle of inertia. Led by Descartes, philosophers had begun to formulate a new conception of nature as an intricate, impersonal, and inert machine. Yet as far as the universities of Europe, including Cambridge, were concerned, all this might well have never happened.
They continued to be the strongholds of outmoded Aristotelianism, which rested on a geocentric view of the universe and dealt with nature in qualitative rather than quantitative terms.
Like thousands of other undergraduates, Newton began his higher education by immersing himself in Aristotle’s work. Even though the new philosophy was not in the curriculum, it was in the air.
Some time during his undergraduate career, Newton discovered the works of the French natural philosopher René Descartes and the other mechanical philosophers, who, in contrast to Aristotle, viewed physical reality as composed entirely of particles of matter in motion and who held that all the phenomena of nature result from their mechanical interaction.
A new set of notes, which he entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions”), begun sometime in 1664, usurped the unused pages of a notebook intended for traditional scholastic exercises; under the title he entered the slogan “Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas” (“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth”). Newton’s scientific career had begun.
The “Quaestiones” reveal that Newton had discovered the new conception of nature that provided the framework of the scientific revolution. He had thoroughly mastered the works of Descartes and had also discovered that the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi had revived atomism, an alternative mechanical system to explain nature.
The “Quaestiones” also reveal that Newton already was inclined to find the latter a more attractive philosophy than Cartesian natural philosophy, which rejected the existence of ultimate indivisible particles. The works of the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle provided the foundation for Newton’s considerable work in chemistry.
Significantly, he had read Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, and was thereby introduced to another intellectual world, the magical Hermetic tradition, which sought to explain natural phenomena in terms of alchemical and magical concepts. The two traditions of natural philosophy, the mechanical and the Hermetic, antithetical though they appear, continued to influence his thought and in their tension supplied the fundamental theme of his scientific career.
Although he did not record it in the “Quaestiones,” Newton had also begun his mathematical studies. He again started with Descartes, from whose La Géometrie he branched out into the other literature of modern analysis with its application of algebraic techniques to problems of geometry. He then reached back for the support of classical geometry.
Within little more than a year, he had mastered the literature; and, pursuing his own line of analysis, he began to move into new territory. He discovered the binomial theorem, and he developed the calculus, a more powerful form of analysis that employs infinitesimal considerations in finding the slopes of curves and areas under curves.
By 1669 Newton was ready to write a tract summarizing his progress, De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum Infinitas (“On Analysis by Infinite Series”), which circulated in manuscript through a limited circle and made his name known. During the next two years he revised it as De methodis serierum et fluxionum (“On the Methods of Series and Fluxions”). The word fluxions, Newton’s private rubric, indicates that the calculus had been born. Despite the fact that only a handful of savants were even aware of Newton’s existence, he had arrived at the point where he had become the leading mathematician in Europe.
Work during the plague years
When Newton received the bachelor’s degree in April 1665, the most remarkable undergraduate career in the history of university education had passed unrecognized. On his own, without formal guidance, he had sought out the new philosophy and the new mathematics and made them his own, but he had confined the progress of his studies to his notebooks. Then, in 1665, the plague closed the university, and for most of the following two years he was forced to stay at his home, contemplating at leisure what he had learned.
During the plague years Newton laid the foundations of the calculus and extended an earlier insight into an essay, “Of Colours,” which contains most of the ideas elaborated in his Opticks. It was during this time that he examined the elements of circular motion and, applying his analysis to the Moon and the planets, derived the inverse square relation that the radially directed force acting on a planet decreases with the square of its distance from the Sun—which was later crucial to the law of universal gravitation. The world heard nothing of these discoveries.
Inaugural lectures at Trinity
Newton was elected to a fellowship in Trinity College in 1667, after the university reopened. Two years later, Isaac Barrow, Lucasian professor of mathematics, who had transmitted Newton’s De Analysi to John Collins in London, resigned the chair to devote himself to divinity and recommended Newton to succeed him.
The professorship exempted Newton from the necessity of tutoring but imposed the duty of delivering an annual course of lectures. He chose the work he had done in optics as the initial topic; during the following three years (1670–72), his lectures developed the essay “Of Colours” into a form which was later revised to become Book One of his Opticks.
Beginning with Kepler’s Paralipomena in 1604, the study of optics had been a central activity of the scientific revolution.
Descartes’s statement of the sine law of refraction, relating the angles of incidence and emergence at interfaces of the media through which light passes, had added a new mathematical regularity to the science of light, supporting the conviction that the universe is constructed according to mathematical regularities.
Descartes had also made light central to the mechanical philosophy of nature; the reality of light, he argued, consists of motion transmitted through a material medium.
Newton fully accepted the mechanical nature of light, although he chose the atomistic alternative and held that light consists of material corpuscles in motion. The corpuscular conception of light was always a speculative theory on the periphery of his optics, however.
The core of Newton’s contribution had to do with colours. An ancient theory extending back at least to Aristotle held that a certain class of colour phenomena, such as the rainbow, arises from the modification of light, which appears white in its pristine form.
Descartes had generalized this theory for all colours and translated it into mechanical imagery. Through a series of experiments performed in 1665 and 1666, in which the spectrum of a narrow beam was projected onto the wall of a darkened chamber, Newton denied the concept of modification and replaced it with that of analysis.
Basically, he denied that light is simple and homogeneous—stating instead that it is complex and heterogeneous and that the phenomena of colours arise from the analysis of the heterogeneous mixture into its simple components. The ultimate source of Newton’s conviction that light is corpuscular was his recognition that individual rays of light have immutable properties; in his view, such properties imply immutable particles of matter.
He held that individual rays (that is, particles of given size) excite sensations of individual colours when they strike the retina of the eye. He also concluded that rays refract at distinct angles—hence, the prismatic spectrum, a beam of heterogeneous rays, i.e., alike incident on one face of a prism, separated or analyzed by the refraction into its component parts—and that phenomena such as the rainbow are produced by refractive analysis.
Because he believed that chromatic aberration could never be eliminated from lenses, Newton turned to reflecting telescopes; he constructed the first ever built. The heterogeneity of light has been the foundation of physical optics since his time.
There is no evidence that the theory of colours, fully described by Newton in his inaugural lectures at Cambridge, made any impression, just as there is no evidence that aspects of his mathematics and the content of the Principia, also pronounced from the podium, made any impression.
Rather, the theory of colours, like his later work, was transmitted to the world through the Royal Society of London, which had been organized in 1660. When Newton was appointed Lucasian professor, his name was probably unknown in the Royal Society; in 1671, however, they heard of his reflecting telescope and asked to see it.
Pleased by their enthusiastic reception of the telescope and by his election to the society, Newton volunteered a paper on light and colours early in 1672. On the whole, the paper was also well received, although a few questions and some dissent were heard.