[1642-1727] Considered to be the
physicist and mathematician who laid the foundations of modern physics.
died before he was born at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and when he was only three, his
mother left him with his grandparents to remarry. Later Newton admitted he was so filled with rage
that he wanted to burn his mother and step father in their house.
Before going to Cambridge,
he had Lived thru 20 years of violent political and social turmoil; civil war, and the restoration
of monarchy with Charles II in 1660
At Cambridge, Newton buried himself in
his studies. Using prisms, he discovered, contrary to the contemporary belief,
that white light
is not pure, but is made up of many colors.
A byproduct of his experiments with light and prisms
was his development of the reflecting telescope, which eliminates the chromatic
aberration of the refracting (light bending) lens by replacing it with a curved
The publication of his initial work on light drew an
attack from Robert Hook, and the resulting controversy in the mid 1670s
resulted in his withdrawal from the international scientific community.
His private notebooks reveal that at the same time he
became a professor at Cambridge,
at age 26, he
began experimenting with alchemy.
The British government outlawed alchemy for fear the
British currency would be debased by fake gold. For years controversy raged
over why Newton took up
alchemy. Traditionally scientists have
work on alchemy as scientifically useless, but now, according to a NOVA documentary,
some are taking a second look:
Bill Newman has recreated Newton’s alchemical receipts. Newton believed that in
the distant past, people knew great truths about nature and the universe, but
that knowledge had been lost. He thought that knowledge was hidden in
Greek myths, which he interpreted as alchemical recipes. For example, one of his recipes, called “the
net”, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphasis, the tale of
Vulcan catching his wife Venus, and the god Mars in bed. Vulcan made a fine metallic net and hung the
lovers from the ceiling for all to see.
In alchemy, Venus
Mars and Vulcan are copper
iron and fire. From this recipe Bill Newman produces a purple alloy called “the
net”, which was thought to be one step towards the philosopher’s stone. Alchemy was a systematic process whose
results could be reproduced and verified, and some, including Newman, see it as a
precursor to modern chemistry. Other scientists, including those in the Royal
Society, practiced alchemy. Newton
never published anything on alchemy and finally gave up on it.
In his early 40’s, Newton was drawn back to science. Copernicus’
heliocentric theory was well established. Newton,
as Halley and others, disagreed with Descart, who held that the universe, even
the planets, moved as parts of a clockwork machine. They knew that
the planets revolved around the sun in slightly elongated orbits, and suspected
the planets were attracted to the sun by some kind of force, and that the attraction
followed the inverse square law. Newton was able to prove
that this required the planets to travel in elliptical orbits.
He sealed himself away for 18 months to figure out the
details of planetary motion.
The result was the
three standard laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, set
forth in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Principia),
The Principia was submitted to Royal Society. This was a new framework for understanding
the universe. Galileo still
believed there were differences between terrestrial and
showed both were governed by the same principles.
The three laws: (1) Unless
acted upon by external forces, a body at rest remains at rest and a body in
motion continues moving at the same speed and direction. (2) An unbalanced
force applied to a body gives it an acceleration
proportional to the force. (3) When a body A exerts a force on body B, B exerts
an equal and opposite force on body A.
In 1679 Newton
calculated the moon’s motion on the basis of his theory of gravity and also
found that his theory explained the laws of planetary motion that had been
derived by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler based on position data
collected by Tycho Brahe.
On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit was published in
The universal law of gravitation was attacked by some,
perhaps followers of Descart, who thought it was a return to belief in the
occult. Some even thought it was related
to his alchemy experiments.
They may have been correct. Pamela Smith of Columbia University
notes that Newton
pursued alchemy because he thought it gave insight into the active principles
of nature. Gravity did not have an explanation; It was an occult force, so Newton believed that it
might be one of those alchemical active principles of nature.
Recently released documents from the
National Library of Jerusalem reveal that for Newton, religion and science were
inseparable; two parts of a lifelong quest to understand the universe. Newton wanted to design a
universe in which God was present and powerful. “A most beautiful system of the
sun planets and comets can only proceed from the council and dominion of an
intelligent and powerful being.” Pamela Smith, of Columbia University
notes: In Newton’s day, science and the investigation of the natural world was
a part of religion.”
Based on the reading of ancient Christian texts, Newton was convinced that the central
doctrine of Christianity, the triune
nature of God, was in fact heretical. Fortunately he never shared this view;
questioning the trinity was considered heresy, and punishable by imprisonment.
The National Library in Jerusalem
holds a document of Newton’s
calculation of the year 2060,
based on the bible, as the time for the battle of Armegedon; the end of the world and the second coming.
In his 50’s, Newton
changed; he became a public icon. He sat
in the Parliaments of
1689 and 1701-2 as a Whig. He was appointed warden of the Royal
Mint in 1696 and master in 1699, when he carried through a reform of the coinage,
and was knighted in 1705.
In 1704 Newton
summed up his life’s work on light in his Optics,
which also included some of his work on calculus.
Newton and Gottfried Leibniz made important contributions to
differential calculus independently, but Newton
claimed to be its sole inventor. When Leibniz took the issue to the Royal
appointed a committee of his own supporters to investigate the issue, and wrote
the report himself. The result was to isolate English mathematics and set it
back years, for it was Leibniz’ more versatile dy/dx
notation which was adopted, rather than the more restrictive ydot.
Secrets (DVD) BBC 2003.
Gale Christianson: Newton biographer
Steven Snobelen University
of King’s College