Isaac Newton had an inauspicious beginning. Born to a farming family in Woolsthorpe, England, Isaac had a rough start. His father died between his conception and his birth. Newton did not shine intellectually as a schoolboy, though he loved model building, especially intricate mechanical devices. By his late teens, he had demonstrated that he would never be a successful farmer, so one of his uncles suggested he educate himself at Trinity College, Cambridge. As in his early years, Newton, the university student, did not demonstrate overwhelming genius.
But while his professors and peers did not take special note of the young man, his university studies stimulated his imagination and prompted him to investigate the world around him. In 1665, tragedy struck the Cambridge community in the form of the plague. In an effort to reduce its impact on that rather elite collection of intellectual prowess, the university was closed and Newton retreated to the farm where he was born. Freed from formal studies, He applied his natural curiosity and developing intellect to areas of personal interest.
He worked on advanced mathematical problems (calculus) and studied the nature and properties of light. In his experiments with prisms, he demonstrated that white light is actually composed of light of all colours in the spectrum. It was also during this time that Newton began work on the natural laws associated with gravity. Several contemporary reports do suggest that it was indeed a falling apple that caught his attention in this regard, but it seems unlikely that the fruit actually struck him on the head.
Once devoting himself to investigation of the matter, he quickly developed the “Law of Universal Gravitation.” While, most of us would struggle to wrap our minds around that, we observe it at work every day. It is this law that governs the orbits of the earth around the sun and moon around the earth. It is a knowledge of this law of nature which allows scientists to calculate the amount of thrust necessary to propel a rocket out of the earth’s atmosphere.
Cambridge reopened its doors and Newton returned in 1667. This time, Newton’s work was noticed and three years later he was appointed professor of mathematics. Newton continued his work both in mathematics and optics. Making use of his aptitude for building detailed mechanical appliances, he built the first reflecting telescope which employed a mirror rather than a lens and was much more powerful. His telescope was only about six inches long yet was as effective as a traditional model several feet in length.
His work with the telescope made him a favourite of astronomers like Edmund Halley (for whom the famous comet is named). The famous observer of the heavens encouraged Newton to publish the results of his works and thereby establish his work in the academic community. He published his “Principia Mathematica” in 1687, outlining the three laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation.
Newton showed that scientific principles can be applied anywhere in the universe. He established the relationships between mass, weight, force, inertia, and acceleration. His work formed the basis for physicists down to our time. While Einstein’s work refined Newton’s and pointed out some flaws, he still depended on the discoveries of his important predecessor. Isaac Newton was the first scientist ever knighted by British royalty (Queen Anne in 1703). He was a member of the Royal Society from 1703 until his death in 1727. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, among England’s elite. The inscription on his tomb demonstrates the regard with which he was held in his own time: “Mortals! Rejoice at so great an ornament to the human race!”
Sir Isaac Newton never married and was more or less cared for by a niece and her family for a considerable part of his life. He was so austere, serious, and devoted to his work that he apparently did not develop many warm friendships. He was a puritan and is reported to have been very serious-minded, rebuking those who made jokes of things that were important to him. His theological work rivaled his scientific labours. He published volumes of commentary and reflection on the Bible. Though he was a deeply spiritual man, he was not an orthodox Christian. His interests ran to the unusual and occult.
The Internet Modern History Sourcebook. provides a quote from the fourth edition of Isaac Newton’s “Optics” published in London in 1730. It demonstrates his firm understanding of God as the spiritual being behind the material creation:
. . . It seems probable to me, that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles, of such sizes and figures, and with such other properties, and in such proportion to space, as most conduced to the end for which he formed them; and that these primitive particles, being solids, are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them; even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first creation. While the particles continue entire, they may compose bodies of one and the same nature and texture in all ages: But should they wear away, or break in pieces, the nature of things depending on them would be changed. Water and earth, composed of old worn particles and fragments of particles would not be of the same nature and texture now, with water and earth composed of entire particles in the beginning. And therefore, that nature may be lasting, the changes of corporeal things are to be placed only in the various separations and new associations and motions of these permanent particles; compound bodies being apt to break, not in the midst of solid particles, but where those particles are laid together, and only touch in a few points.
Alexander Pope, the great English poet, was a contemporary of Newton. The man of letters eulogised the man of science with these lines:
God said ‘Let Newton be!’
And all was light.”