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Sir Isaac Newton The Most Influential Scientist English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4964 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Sir Isaac Newton, the most influential scientist of the world was a respected polymath. He was a Physicist, Mathematician, Astronomer, Natural philosopher, Alchemist and a Theologian. Today’s modern and technically advanced era of scientific supremacy could not be possible without his scientific and mechanical contributions. His discoveries in various fields are a priceless gift to mankind. Sir Isaac Newton was an extraordinary genius, who advanced every branch of Mathematics and Physics. His discoveries and works laid the foundation of modern classical mechanics which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. He certainly is the key person of modern scientific revolution. But, as a person, he had shown a very complex character throughout his life.

Whereas at one end, Newton was extremely focused and deeply concentrated at his works and experiments; on the other, he was a very lonely person struggling against his emotionally scattered childhood that was full of resentments. Throughout his life, he verged on the brink of emotional collapse, occasionally falling into violent and vindictive attacks against friend and foe alike.

Newton, although an unorthodox Christian, was deeply religious and always feared being accused of refusing holy orders. Newton’s journey of life oscillated between the peaks of the realizations of the truth of universe and the crests of some negative feelings, like hatred towards women, volatile temper, fear, resentments and many other emotional complexities. The seed of his complex character lies in his lonesome and distraught childhood. It seems, that the sorrow and solitude culminated inside the child Newton was transformed into the great affection and inquisition for Mother Nature in due course. Mother Nature also lovingly opened her secrets to her dear child, Newton.

A versatile scientist, a creative genius, a sensitive human being, a strict administrator and a meditative holy person; Newton’s journey of life begins with a sad and lonely childhood.

A devastated childhood

According to the old calendar used in those days in England, Isaac Newton was born in the manor house of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, England on the Christmas Day of 1642. Later, his date of birth was corrected according to the Gregorian calendar as 4th January, 1643. His father, also named as Isaac Newton, was a prosperous illiterate farmer who could not even sign his own name. He died in October 1642, three months before his son was born. As a prematurely born baby, Newton was a small child. His mother Hannah Ayscough reportedly said that he could have fit inside a quart mug (≈1.1litres). In January 1646, just after Newton’s third birthday, his mother remarried Barnabas Smith, the Minister of the Church at North Witham, in a nearby village. She went to live with her new husband leaving her child in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough at Woolsthorpe.

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The devastated child, who had never set eyes on his father, was now suddenly parted from his mother too. As he grew older, he discovered how agonizingly close his mother remained; by climbing a tree he could view the steeple of North Witham’s church in the distance. That is where she was living. But he was aware of the bitter fact that there was a mysterious stranger who had ‘stolen’ his mother away. An emotionally shattered Newton always thought of himself as an orphan. Abandoned with the maternal love and care, he never found emotional support and attachment with his grandparents. His grandfather, James Ayscough was never mentioned by Newton in later life and James too, left nothing to Newton in his will. James had made his will when Newton was 10 years old. Maybe, this was one of the reasons of resentment inculcated inside Newton with respect to his grandfather.

When Newton’s stepfather died in 1653, Hanna, now a very rich widow, returned to Woolsthorpe with the three children in tow. For more than eight years, Newton was effectively separated from his mother. His pronounced psychotic tendencies have been ascribed to this traumatic event. He developed an acute sense of insecurity that rendered him an obsessively anxious person. Now, Newton lived in an extended family consisting of his mother, his grandmother, one half-brother and two half-sisters. By this time, 11 year old Newton had long since learnt to insulate himself from human contact by withdrawing into the hidden recesses of his mind. His brother and sisters were never mentioned by Newton in his later life. It seems, he did not have any friendly or formal rapport with his family members. It is clear that the abandoned son not only possessed a volatile temper, but also nursed grudges and would wait years, if need be, to gain revenge on those he believed had wronged him.

The young Newton disliked his stepfather and maintained some enmity towards his mother for marrying him, as revealed by the entries in a list of sins committed up to the age of 19:

“Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them”

“Wishing death and hoping it to some.”

Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen considered it fairly certain that Newton had ‘Asperger’ syndrome. People with Asperger syndrome often have difficulty socially but many of them have above-average intelligence. They may excel in fields such as computer programming and science. There is no delay in their cognitive development, ability to take care of themselves, or curiosity about their environment. People with Asperger syndrome become over-focused or obsessed on a single object or topic, ignoring all others. They want to know everything about this subject and often talk about little else. Their problems with speech and language in a social setting often lead to isolation and aloofness.

Early schooling

Hannah was determined that Newton, unlike his father, should grow up literate. During her absence, Newton was enrolled in a village school to which he walked back and forth each day. A year after Hannah returned to Woolsthorpe, the 12 year old Newton began attending the Free Grammar School called King’s School at Grantham. Although the market town Grantham was only five miles from his home, Newton lodged with William Clarke’s family at Grantham. It seems Newton’s indifferent behavior with the family members was the reason behind his lodging with William Clarke’s family at Grantham.

At King’s School, Latin and Greek were the languages of instruction, and during this period the foundations of young Newton’s classical education were laid. Bible studies were also an important part of the curriculum. Newton became familiar with the Hebrew script also. Though grammar and literature were the main focus of the school curriculum, students also received a limited amount of instruction in arithmetic. It is reported that instead of playing with the other boys after school, ‘he busied himself in making knickknacks and wood models in many kinds; for which purpose he had got little saws, hatches, hammers and a whole shop of tools, which he would use with great dexterity.’

Some of his frequently mentioned mechanical models were his windmill model, Newton’s dial (as was popularly known) to know the time, water clock etc. Water clock was constructed from a wooden box given to him by William Clarke’s brother-in-law. It stood four feet high and had a dial at the top with the numbers of the hours. The device was driven by a piece of wood, which alternately rose and fell according to the rhythmic dripping of water. It was kept in the room where he lived and was occasionally checked by the Clarkes to see what hour it was.

Newton was equally fascinated by kites and made them in various shapes to determine the design best suited for a sustained flight. He also made lanterns from crumpled paper and lit them with candles while walking to school on dark winter mornings. These he sometimes tied to the tails of his kites at night, frightening the country people who mistook them for passing comets. Isaac Newton was not simply an aimless childhood tinkerer but a tinkerer playing with ideas and mechanism.

An interesting incident took place when the Lord protector Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658. A great storm swept over England, giving rise to the superstition that it was the devil riding the whirlwind to claim his lost soul. Taking advantage of a rare opportunity of this great storm, 15 year old Newton entered into a competition with several of the more athletic youths to see who could jump the farthest. By carefully timing the gusts of wind, he out leaped the other boys, much to their surprise and embarrassment. Many years later, Newton remarked to a relative that this was one of his first experiments.

According to Dr. William Stukeley, a friend of Isaac Newton, “smaller and physically weaker than most of his schoolmates, Newton attempted to teach them ‘to play philosophically’.” As a teenager, Newton had interest in sketching and poetry also but these were passed soon. He had interest in books too. One of the many books that captured his attention was ‘the Mysteries of Nature and Art’ by John Bate, the third edition of which was published in 1654, when Newton was 11.

In light of his interest in books and all things mechanical, one would have expected Newton to do well in his studies, but that was not the case. His school reports described him as ‘idle’ and ‘inattentive’. He was motivated to study partly by a desire for revenge against a schoolyard bully. One day in the school, a physical fight took place between Newton and one of his class-mate, who was physically stronger and better in studies than him. Though Newton was weaker, he fought revengefully and ultimately defeated him. It is reported that this incident proved as a turning point for Newton. He started paying attention to his studies and soon became the top-ranked and a star student of the school. These school years were the happiest in Newton’s life, but his mother Hannah had decided that he must return to Woolsthorpe to begin learning ways of a respected landowner. She thought that her eldest son was the right person to manage her affairs and her estate. Hannah was adamant. Newton was taken away from school, but soon showed that he had no talent or interest in managing an estate. Dr. William Stukeley recalled, “His chief delight was to sit under a tree, with a book in his hands, or to busy himself with his knife in cutting wood for models of something or other that struck his fancy, or he would go to a running stream, and make little millwheels to put into the water.” Not only did the sheep stray and the wheat go unplanted, but the adolescent often forgot to return home for meals, a character trait that would resurface in the adult Newton. Related to his passion for learning one of the sin listed by Newton was:-

… setting my heart on money, learning, and pleasure more than Thee…

This clearly tells us how passionate Newton was about learning.

On the other hand, all the endeavors of an annoyed Hannah to change Newton’s behavior went into vain and Newton continued to live for the creation of his own mind.

Impressed by the models and devices made by Newton and his urge for knowledge, Henry Stokes, the headmaster of King’s School, who was keeping close track of his star pupil, finally decided to intercede on Newton’s behalf. According to him, “The only way whereby he could preserve or raise his fortune must be by fitting him for the university.” Henry Stokes had a firm belief over the extraordinary possibilities inside Newton. He visited Hannah at Woolsthorpe and tried to make her understand. The headmaster even offered to forego forty shillings required of all pupils born more than a mile from Grantham, no small sacrifice for a man of modest mean. To an illiterate woman, land was the only thing that mattered, which she owned now after her two marriages. She was unable to understand Newton as a person and the need and importance of higher studies for him. She finally turned to her trusted brother, William Ayscough for advice. To her surprise, William also advised her that Newton should return to school and therefore, a reluctant Hannah gave her consent.

At the age of 17, Newton returned to the King’s School in Grantham in 1660 to complete his school education. This time, he lodged with Henry Stokes, the headmaster of the school. It seems Henry Stokes was the person who shaped Newton’s intellect in its initial stage to be a future scientist. Finally, in 1661, an 18 year old Newton completed his school education.

At the moment of departure, with tears in his eyes, Henry Stokes made a speech praising the young man and urging the other youths to follow his example. On a window ledge of King’s School, with the aid of a penknife, Newton left a simple, permanent record to be gazed upon by later generation of curious admirers: “I. Newton.”

At Trinity College Cambridge

On 5th June, 1661, Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge. He was older than most of his fellow students but, despite the fact that his mother was financially well off, he entered as a sizar- a sort of work-study role. At Cambridge, a sizar was a student who received an allowance towards college expenses in exchange for acting as a servant to other students. There is certainly some ambiguity in his position as a sizar, for he seems to have associated with ‘better class’ students rather than other sizars. Some reports suggested that Newton may have had Humphrey Babington, a distant relative who was a Fellow of Trinity, as his patron. This reasonable explanation would fit well with what is known and also mean that his mother did not subject him unnecessarily to hardship, as some of his biographers claim.

It is reported, that initially Newton’s aim at Cambridge was a Law degree. At that time, the college’s teachings were based on those of Aristotle (Greek philosopher and polymath), whom Newton supplemented with modern philosophers such as Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbs and in particular Boyle and astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.  He recorded his thoughts in a book which he entitled Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae (Certain Philosophical Questions).

It is clear that Newton was yet far away from the interest or the studies of Mathematical Sciences. How he got introduced to the most advanced mathematical texts of his day is also ambiguous. According to the famous mathematician Abraham de Moivre, Newton’s interest in mathematics began in the autumn of 1663 when he bought an astrology book (astrological science happens to be pure mathematical in its content) at a fair in Cambridge and found that he could not understand the mathematics in it. Again attempting to read a trigonometry book, he found that he lacked knowledge of geometry and so he decided to read the famous mathematician Barrow’s edition of Euclid’s “Elements”, a famous book on mathematics. The first few results were so easy that he almost gave up, but he:-

… changed his mind when he read that parallelograms upon the same base and between the same parallels are equal.

After Euclid’s Elements, Newton studied many books on mathematics like Oughtred’s “Clavis Mathematica”, Descartes “La Géométrie” and “Analytical Geometry” by Viète. Newton also studied Wallis’s Algebra and it appears that his first original mathematical work came from his study of this text. He read Wallis’s method for finding a square of equal area to a parabola and a hyperbola which used indivisibles. Newton made notes on Wallis’s treatment of series and also devised his own proofs of the theorems writing:-

Thus Wallis doth it, but it may be done thus…

There is no evidence or any mention of a guiding hand for Newton. It leads to the belief that Newton alone was responsible for his Mathematical education.

Newton’s talent began to emerge on the arrival of Barrow to the Lucasian chair at Cambridge in 1663. The incumbent of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics, usually called the Lucasian Professor, is the holder of a mathematics professorship at the University of Cambridge, England. It is widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious academic posts. The post was founded in 1663 by Henry Lucas, who was Cambridge University’s Member of Parliament from 1639-1640. The post was officially established by King Charles II on January 18, 1664. It is a fascinating account of how Newton’s ideas were already forming around 1664. He headed the text with a Latin statement meaning “Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth” showing himself a free thinker from an early stage.

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In 1664, at the age of 20, Newton became a Fellow at Trinity College. Certainly the date matches the beginnings of Newton’s deep mathematical studies. Despite some evidence that his progress had not been particularly good, 21 year old Newton was elected a scholar on 28th April, 1664, after passing the required scholarship examinations. Promoted from the title of ‘sizar’ to a ‘scholar’, he was now entitled to receive free meals from his college in addition to a regular stipend. More importantly, he could remain at Trinity to take his master’s degree. And finally, at the age of 22, Newton received his Bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1665.

In the summer of 1665 Newton had to return to his home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire as the university temporarily closed as a precaution against the Great Plague. At Lincolnshire, in a period of less than two years, he began revolutionary advances in Mathematics, Optics, Physics and Astronomy.

While Newton remained at home in those so called plague years (1665-67), he laid the foundations for differential and integral calculus, several years before its independent discovery by Leibniz, the famous German mathematician. Newton termed it as the ‘method of fluxions’. It was based on his crucial insight that the integration of a function is merely the inverse procedure to differentiating it. Taking differentiation as the basic operation, Newton produced simple analytical methods that unified many separate techniques previously developed to solve apparently unrelated problems such as finding areas, tangents, the lengths of curves and the maxima and minima of functions. He also discovered the generalized binomial theorem and began to develop a mathematical theory that later became infinitesimal calculus, optics and the law of gravitation.

During this period, Newton experienced the insight that has since become a legend. About this period, decades later, he wrote to the French scholar Pierre Des Maizeaux, “For in those days I was in the prime of my age of invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since.”

In 1667, he returned to Cambridge as a minor Fellow of Trinity. Fellows were required to become ordained priests (Ordination is the process by which individuals are consecrated, i.e., made to associate with the sacred and set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies), something Newton desired to avoid due to his unorthodox views. Luckily for Newton, there was no specific deadline for ordination, and it could be postponed indefinitely. However, the problem became more severe later in 1669, when Newton was elected for the prestigious Lucasian Chair.

Just after being awarded his Master’s Degree, at the age of 25 and a half, Newton was elected for a major fellowship in July 1668 which allowed him to dine at the Fellows’ Table. In July 1669, Barrow, who was the Lucasian Professor at Cambridge since 1663, tried to ensure that Newton’s mathematical achievements became known to the world. He sent Newton’s text ‘De Analysi’ to John Collins, an English mathematician in London, writing:-

[Newton] “brought me the other day some papers, wherein he set down methods of calculating the dimensions of magnitudes like that of Mr Mercator concerning the hyperbola, but very general; as also of resolving equations; which I suppose will please you; and I shall send you them by the next.”

Collins corresponded with all the leading mathematicians of the day so that Barrow’s action could lead to quick recognition. Collins showed Brouncker, the President of the Royal Society, Newton’s results (with the author’s permission) but after this Newton requested that his manuscript be returned. 

Newton’s work has been said, “to distinctly advance every branch of mathematics then studied”. His work on the subject usually referred to as fluxions or calculus, seen in a manuscript of October 1666, is now published among Newton’s mathematical papers. The author of the manuscript “De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas”, sent by Barrow to John Collins in June 1669, was identified by Barrow in a letter sent to Collins in August of that year as:

“Mr. Newton, a fellow of our college, very young … but of an extraordinary genius and proficiency in these things.”

Barrow resigned from the Lucasian chair in 1669 to devote himself to divinity, recommending Newton, still only 27 years old, to be appointed in his place. In those days, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford was required to become an ordained priest. However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required that the holder not be active in the church (presumably so as to have more time for science). Newton argued that this should exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose permission was needed, accepted this argument. Thus, a conflict between Newton’s religious views and Anglican orthodoxy was averted. Shortly after his appointment as Lucasian Professor, Newton visited London and twice met with Collins but later wrote:

“… having no more acquaintance with him I did not think it becoming to urge him to communicate anything.”

Newton’s first work as Lucasian Professor was on Optics and this was also the topic of his first lecture course which began in January 1670. He had reached the conclusion during the two plague years that white light is not a simple entity. This view of Newton regarding white light was an entirely new idea. Till that date every scientist since Aristotle had believed that white light was a basic single entity. However, the chromatic aberration in a telescope lens convinced Newton otherwise. When he passed a thin beam of sunlight through a glass prism, Newton noted that a spectrum of seven colours was formed.

Developing over a few years, a series of increasingly elaborate, refined and exact experiments, Newton discovered measurable and mathematical patterns in the phenomenon of colour. He found white light to be a mixture of infinitely varied coloured rays (manifest in the rainbow and the spectrum), with each ray definable by the angle through which it is refracted on entering or leaving a given transparent medium. He correlated this notion with his study of the interference colours of thin films (for example, of oil on water, or soap bubbles), using a simple technique of extreme acuity to measure the thickness of such films.

Newton held that light consisted of streams of minute particles. From his experiments he could infer the magnitudes of the transparent ‘corpuscles’ forming the surfaces of bodies, which, according to their dimensions, so interacted with white light as to reflect selectively, the different observed colours of those surfaces. He argued, white light was really a mixture of many different types of rays which were refracted at slightly different angles, and that each different type of ray produced a different spectral colour. Newton was led by this reasoning to the erroneous conclusion that telescopes using refracting lenses would always suffer chromatic aberration. He therefore proposed and constructed a reflecting telescope in 1672.

At the age of 29 years, Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society after donating a reflecting telescope. In the same year, Newton published his first scientific paper on light and colour in the ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society’. The paper was generally well received, but Robert Hooke, the society’s celebrated curator of experiments, and Huygens, the famous mathematician, objected and criticized it bitterly. Newton could not take it easy. He locked horns with Robert Hooke.

In 1675, at the age of 32, Newton ventured yet another paper, which again drew lightning, this time charged with claims that he had plagiarized from Hooke. The charges were entirely ungrounded but a ‘twice burnt Newton’, withdrew. The ensuing controversy, which continued until 1678, established a pattern in Newton’s behavior. He was always pulled in two directions; there was something in his nature which wanted fame and recognition yet another side of him feared criticism and the easiest way to avoid being criticized was to publish nothing. Although the two men made their peace with an exchange of polite letters, Newton turned in on himself and away from the Royal Society which he associated with Hooke as one of its leaders.

Newton was also engaged in another exchange on his theory of colours with a circle of English Jesuits in Liège, perhaps the most revealing exchange of all. Although their objections were shallow, their contention that his experiments were mistaken lashed him into a fury. The correspondence dragged on until 1678, when a final shriek of rage from Newton, apparently accompanied by a complete nervous breakdown, was followed by silence. The death of his mother the following year completed his isolation.

It is reported, that Newton had a very bitter relationship with his mother in later life also. Abandoned with the motherly love and care since childhood, he collected rage and resentment towards women. May be this was the reason behind his illogical hatred towards women during his entire life. There is no evidence of love or romance in Newton’s life. At most, what can be said is, that no evidence has been uncovered that he had any romantic relationship. However, it is also reported that Newton was once engaged, but he never married. This claim was made by Dr. William Stukeley, in 1727, in a letter about Newton written to Dr. Richard Mead, an English physician and a fellow of Royal Society. Charles Hutton, who in the late 18th century collected oral traditions about earlier scientists, declares that there “do not appear to be any sufficient reason for his never marrying, if he had an inclination so to do. It is much more likely that he had a constitutional indifference to the state and even to the sex in general.” After his nervous breakdown, for six years Newton withdrew from intellectual commerce except when others initiated a correspondence, which he always broke off as quickly as possible.

Newton was working on many subjects at the same time. His greatest achievement was his work in physics and celestial mechanics, which culminated in the theory of universal gravitation. Newton had early versions of his world famous ‘Three laws of Motion’ since 1666. He had discovered the law giving the centrifugal force on a body moving uniformly in a circular path. However, he did not have a correct understanding of the mechanics of circular motion.

Newton was inspired to formulate his theory of gravitation by watching the fall of an apple from a tree. Newton himself told this story many times and it is confirmed by his friend William Stukeley also. Stukeley once visited Newton at his home in Kensington near London. After dining, they went into the garden to drink tea under the shade of some apple trees. Amidst other discourse, Stukeley wrote, “he told me he was just in the same situation as when formerly the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.”

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint (the body permitted to manufacture, or mint coins in United Kingdom) and husband of Newton’s niece, also described the event when he wrote about Newton’s life: “In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. Whilst he was pensively meandering in a garden it came into his thought that the power of gravity (which brought an apple from a tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from Earth, but that this power must extend much further than was usually thought. Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so, that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculation what would be the effect of that supposition.”


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