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No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess.‘ – Isaac Newton

In the mid-seventeenth century, shortly after Galileo Galilei passed away, one of the most celebrated Physicists and Mathematicians was born. It is based on his theories that the world is the edifice as we see it today. As this puny child grew up, he formulated almost everything in Physics and his work laid the foundation for one of the most applied fields in Mathematics. He was a prodigy and his name was Isaac Newton.

Sir-Isaac-Newton-aged-46-011

Newton’s mother wanted him to be a farmer. His mother even pulled him out of school. Isaac Newton felt farming was very monotonous and he wasn’t cut out for that. He was sent back to school after he failed terribly in farming. Newton was fascinated by advanced sciences even as a child. Henry Stokes at Trinity College of Cambridge university persuaded Isaac’s mother to get him into university education. Newton joined a work-study program at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661.

His admission to the University of Cambridge marked the beginning of his adventures in Advanced Sciences. It was during the Great Plague, when the university had to be closed, that Newton started most of his scientific & mathematical work. What followed is history, as they say!

What can you expect in this article?

  • A quick look at some of Newton’s most famous professional accomplishments
  • A peek into his personal life to understand the mastermind better

When Was Newton Born?

Sometimes written as December 25, 1642according to the old Julian calendar, Isaac Newton was a born on December 4, 1643 in Lincolnshire, England.

Newton’s Laws of Motion

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s notions dominated the scientific world for many years. The reason was mainly that his statements more or less explained the common observations, when not studied in detail. Aristotle believed that a heavier object would reach the ground before a lighter object, both dropped at the same time. He denounced the concept of inertia and believed that for an object to move, a constant force must be applied to it. The first jolt to his theories came when Copernicus proposed the Heliocentric theory. Next was when Galileo, who according to some accounts, dropped balls of different mass from the top of The Leaning tower of Pisa. They landed at the same time.

The final nail in the coffin of Aristotle’s theories was struck by Sir Isaac Newton. Newton, in his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, offered the most conclusive discussion on ‘Motion’. Principia was the most important scientific book ever written as it set forth the exact mathematical system for ‘Motion of Objects’ based on critical observations and experiments conducted by Newton. The illustrations made in the book were both detailed & precise. It is debated as to whether Newton actually proposed ‘The Three Laws of Motion’ or they are the way we understand his work.

He had learned mostly through theories of Copernicus, Galileo & Rene Descartes. Although he took help from previous scientific thinkers’ theories, Newton’s work laid the foundation for almost the entire developments in Kinetics and Dynamics that followed. His work made him so popular that he was even elected to the Parliament!

Read about Newton’s first, second and third law and their practical applications.

Facsimile of Principia's Coverpage
Facsimile of Principia’s cover page

The Discovery of Gravity 

If traditional accounts were to be believed, a young man observed that ‘An apple always fell towards the ground from a tree’. He studied the phenomenon and proposed the concept of Gravitation. Newton always made sure his works had the mathematical support through rigorous experimentation. He proposed that everybody in the universe attracts every other body with a force, which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely to the square of the distance between them. Published in ‘The Principia’, this came to be known as Newton’s universal law of Gravitation. Newton even touched upon the heliocentric theory in Principia Mathematica, at the prompting of another famous astronomer, Edmund Halley (1656-1742).

His Observations on the Wave-Particle Duality: Light

Even though Newton’s first scientific achievement was a Reflecting Telescope, his contribution to the theory of light’s behavior is rarely discussed. There is a reason for it.

Newton was very insecure and protective of his theories. He discussed his theory on light and its behavior in his book Opticks. Since it was Newton’s book that theorized on light’s behaviour, it was widely read and widely debated as well. The book was published in 1704.

Earlier in the year 1678, Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens had proposed that light is an ‘infinity of waves’. Since his theory was able to explain most of the observed phenomena of light, he could convince many, but convincing Newton was a different task altogether. Newton argued that if light were a wave, it should bend through crooked pipes like sound does. One can hear someone shouting around some corner but can’t see them.

Facsimile of Opticks' Coverpage
Facsimile of Newton’s Opticks cover page

So, Newton proposed that Light is corpuscular in nature. The debate was almost settled with Light’s corpuscular behaviour as the winning theory.

However, in 1801 Thomas young conducted, what’s often called the single most influential experiment in Physics: ‘The Double-slit Experiment’. He was able to show the non-rectilinear nature of light as they crossed a very thin slit. So, the debate of wave or particle nature of light was settled once again. However, the light was considered wave only till the next concrete development from Albert Einstein’s Photoelectric Effect. Photoelectric effect brought forth the existence of photons, thereby establishing the dual nature of light.

So, Newton wasn’t wrong. He just had less time. In fact, the reason why Young’s Double Slit experiment is respected so much is that he could provide a counter to a legend’s arguments.

Newton-Leibniz Calculus Controversy

Newton had developed his concept of “fluxions” (differentials) in the mid-1660s to account for celestial orbits, though there was no public record of his work. In the meantime, German mathematician Leibniz formulated his own mathematical theories and published them in 1684. Newton’s claims over calculus led to a dispute which continued for long even after Leibniz’s death in 1716. Researchers later concluded that both men likely arrived at their conclusions independent of one another.

International Recognition received by Isaac Newton

The rising prominence and reputation encouraged Newton to take interest in other spheres, which made him more and more active in public life. His position at Cambridge interested him no more as he became interested in other issues. Following this, Newton was elected to represent Cambridge at the Parliament. In 1696, he was appointed to the position of Warden of the Mint. Acquiring the title, he moved to London to attain this long-desired governmental position. No longer than in 1699, he was promoted to the position of Master of the Mint. Holding the profile until his death, Newton worked on reforming the status of currency and punishing clippers and counterfeiters. He even moved the currency from silver to gold standard.

Other Contributions

Though his personal life’s troubles came up during his later life, his contribution can never be shadowed by it. We can clearly see his contribution in other areas of Physics & Mathematics from the following reflections:

  • Fluids are widely classified as Newtonian & Non-Newtonian fluids.
  • One of the lesser known scales of temperature measurement is Newton.
  • One of the methods of solving Ordinary Differential Equations is Newton’s method.
  • Newton generalized the formula of Binomial expansion and much more.
  • Isaac Newton was the first to observe dispersion of white light into a spectrum of seven colours.
  • Newton also devised methods to calculate density of planets & impact of one planet’s rotation on the other.
  • Newton also proved that the tides on the sea happen as a result of Sun/Moon’s force of gravity. This required a lot of data collection

Knowing the Real Isaac Newton

Despite having a near-to perfect professional life, Newton’s personal life was less than perfect. He suffered from bouts of insecurity, pride and even mental instability.

Many post-Freudian biographers (and not only fully paid-up Freudians) trace the roots of Newton’s insecurity and aggressiveness to his earliest years. His father died before he was born. When he was barely three years old, his mother remarried and moved into the home of her new husband Barnabas Smith, leaving the infant Isaac in the care of her own parents until Smith’s death some seven years later, when she came back, bringing with her two daughters and a son from her second marriage. He was 3 years old at the time. In the absence of his mother, his grandmother took care of him. His grandmother too left him when she died. This made Newton very insecure about his close friends and more so about something even closer to him, his theories.

Newton was a very reserved person and hardly kept accounts of his private life. However, according to few personal records addressed to the almighty where he confessed to his sins. These included ‘Squirting water on Thy day’, ‘Making pies on Sunday night’, ‘Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times’,’Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter’, ‘Punching sister’ and along these lines. All this indicated his sincerity towards his work & God.

In 1693, when he suffered a breakdown, Newton drew a wedge between his closest friends and himself through his actions when he wrote accusatory letters to them.

Newton spent his final years in Cranbury Park in Winchester England with his niece and her husband. He had achieved considerable popularity due to his scientific discoveries and a whole lot of money as well.

Newton breathed his last on March 20, 1727, in his sleep after experiencing severe pain in his abdomen. He was buried at the Westminister Abbey. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History houses a statue of Isaac Newton, looking at an apple at his feet. Furthermore, the piazza of the British Library in London holds a large bronze statue of Newton.

After Newton’s Death – Legacy and Commemorations

“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Isaac Newton’s fame grew after he passed away upon being compared to the likes of Aristotle and Plato. He contribution to science and his theory on principles of gravity is incomparable.

Great things were said & written of Sir Isaac Newton both in life and after he passed away. Here are a few examples

    1. Alexander Pope, a famous poet, wrote Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
      God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.
    2. Sir Albert Einstein, greatest physicist of his time, kept a picture of Sir Isaac Newton in his study.
    3. An Aristocrat bought a tooth said to have belonged to Sir Isaac Newton at a huge amount equivalent to over 3600$ (USD). He got it embedded on his ring.
    4. Sculptor Michael Rysbrack executed a monument of Newton at Westminster Abbey – Newton’s Monument. The monument has latin inscription which begin like this (in English) – ‘Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced……’
Newton's Monument -Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London
Newton’s Monument -Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London
  1. Between 1978 & 1988, Newton’s image could be seen on 1 EURO banknotes that were issued by The Bank of England in the period.
  2. Newton’s statue can also be seen at the Oxford University Museum of Natural history & British Library in London, England.
  3. In a worldwide poll conducted by PhysicsWorld, Isaac Newton was ranked next to Albert Einstein. The positions were exchanged in another similar poll conducted by PhysicsWeb.

These were just a few instances of honour & appreciation by people, proving Isaac Newton’s greatness, even after his death. True honour, however, lies in the fact that even after almost 3 centuries of his death, his theories stand as tall as they were when he originally proposed them.

In conclusion, it’s totally clear that had it not been for Sir Isaac Newton, the world would have been a much different place to live in. Isaac Newton’s fame grew even more after his death, as many of his contemporaries proclaimed him the greatest genius who ever lived. His discoveries had a large impact on Western thought, leading to comparisons to the likes of Plato, Aristotle, and Galileo. He was the greatest Physicist there has ever been or will be.

Take a look at an imaginary, yet fun conversation between a common person of today’s era and Sir Isaac Newton in this article! You can read about another great physicist, Nikola Tesla.

For more such interesting articles, keep reading Toppr Bytes.

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