Heroes of Space: Isaac Newton

The life and work of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds

Much of our modern understanding of physics and astronomy is owed to Newton’s work.

Much of our modern understanding of physics and astronomy is owed to Newton’s work.

Sir Isaac Newton is considered by many to be one of the most important scientists to have ever lived. Despite a troubled youth and some bitter rivalries in adulthood, his contributions to the world of science are perhaps unprecedented in their scope and application.

Born prematurely on Christmas day in 1642, his childhood was thrown into turmoil at the age of three when his single mother left to raise a second family. He was left to the care of his grandmother in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, until his mother’s return in 1653, although by then their separation coupled with his hatred for his step father would have serious implications on his later life.

After rejecting the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a farmer, a profession Newton was not remotely interested in pursuing, he was accepted to Cambridge University in June 1661. Here he came into his element, although largely unbeknownst to his professors at the time as he preferred to study privately. In 1665, having earned his bachelor’s degree, he was able to continue working alone in unusual circumstances when the university was closed due to the plague. In this time he was able to formulate many of the theories in mathematics and philosophy that would influence his later work.

Before his 27th birthday in 1669 Newton would come to hold the prestigious position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. In 1672 he published his first paper, a controversial study on the nature of colour, which began a bitter rivalry with the scientist Robert Hooke. These tussles left Newton emotionally frail, and in 1678 after the death of his mother he suffered a breakdown. He became isolated and withdrawn, and became devoted to alchemical studies.

It was these studies that helped him formulate his most renowned piece of work. Rather than sticking to the rigidity of physics that pervaded at the time, namely the study only of physical matter, Newton began to envision an invisible force that had an effect on everything. It is often said that earlier in 1666 he saw an apple fall from a tree and quickly formulated his theories of gravity. In actuality, however, it was almost two decades of work that allowed him to appreciate the importance of this force.

An interchange of letters with Hooke regarding planetary motion ironically helped Newton formulate his thoughts into a capable theory. In 1686 he had consolidated his work into his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, a series of three books with the first published in 1687. They stated his now famous laws of motion and universal gravitation, in addition to forming the foundation of classical mechanics on which modern physics and calculus is now based. His work was astounding in its breadth and depth.

Newton would continue to be hounded by Hooke until the latter’s death in 1703, after which Newton was elected president of The Royal Society. In the following year he published his second major work, Opticks, which analysed the nature of light. In it he described the diffraction and refraction of light by lenses and prisms.

Newton lived out most of the remainder of his days in London until his death in Cranbury Park, near Winchester, on 20 March 1727. Having contended with hardship for his whole life, he was finally able to reap power and success from his groundbreaking work, albeit sometimes with imperious tactics during his time as president of the Royal Society. Nonetheless, he is rightly regarded as one of the greatest scientific minds to have ever lived, and his work continues to form the basis of our efforts to further understand the universe.

Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

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