Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian who is considered by many scholars and members of the general public to be one of the most influential people in human history. His 1687 publication of the Philosophić Naturalis Principia Mathematica (usually called the Principia) is considered to be among the most influential books in the history of science, laying the groundwork for most of classical mechanics. In this work, Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. Newton showed that the motions of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies are governed by the same set of natural laws by demonstrating the consistency between Kepler's laws of planetary motion and his theory of gravitation, thus removing the last doubts about heliocentrism and advancing the scientific revolution.
Newton also built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours that form the visible spectrum. He also formulated an empirical law of cooling and studied the speed of sound.
In mathematics, Newton shares the credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of the differential and integral calculus. He also demonstrated the generalised binomial theorem, developed Newton's method for approximating the roots of a function, and contributed to the study of power series.
Newton remains uniquely influential to scientists, as demonstrated by a 2005 survey of members of Britain's Royal Society asking who had the greater effect on the history of science and had the greater contribution to humankind, Newton or Albert Einstein. Royal Society scientists deemed Newton to have made the greater overall contribution on both
Newton's work on the subject usually referred to as fluxions or calculus is seen, for example, in a manuscript of October 1666, now published among Newton's mathematical papers. A related subject of his mathematical work was infinite series. Newton's manuscript "De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas" ("On analysis by equations infinite in number of terms") was sent by Isaac Barrow to John Collins in June 1669: in August 1669 Barrow identified its author to Collins as "Mr Newton, a fellow of our College, and very young ... but of an extraordinary genius and proficiency in these things".
Newton later became involved in a dispute with Leibniz over priority in the development of infinitesimal calculus. Most modern historians believe that Newton and Leibniz developed infinitesimal calculus independently, although with very different notations. Occasionally it has been suggested that Newton published almost nothing about it until 1693, and did not give a full account until 1704, while Leibniz began publishing a full account of his methods in 1684. (Leibniz's notation and "differential Method", nowadays recognised as much more convenient notations, were adopted by continental European mathematicians, and after 1820 or so, also by British mathematicians.) Such a suggestion, however, fails to notice the content of calculus which critics of Newton's time and modern times have pointed out in Book 1 of Newton's Principia itself (published 1687) and in its forerunner manuscripts, such as De motu corporum in gyrum ("On the motion of bodies in orbit"), of 1684. The Principia is not written in the language of calculus either as we know it or as Newton's (later) 'dot' notation would write it. But Newton's work extensively uses an infinitesimal calculus in geometric form, based on limiting values of the ratios of vanishing small quantities: in the Principia itself Newton gave demonstration of this under the name of 'the method of first and last ratios' and explained why he put his expositions in this form, remarking also that 'hereby the same thing is performed as by the method of indivisibles'.
Because of this content the Principia has been called "a book dense with the theory and application of the infinitesimal calculus" in modern times and "lequel est presque tout de ce calcul" ('nearly all of it is of this calculus') in Newton's time. Newton's use of methods involving "one or more orders of the infinitesimally small" is present in Newton's De Motu Corporum in Gyrum of 1684 and in his papers on motion "during the two decades preceding 1684".
Newton had been reluctant to publish his calculus because he feared controversy and criticism. Newton had a very close relationship with Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, who from the beginning was impressed by Newton's gravitational theory. In 1691, Duillier planned to prepare a new version of Newton's Principia, but never finished it. However, in 1693 the relationship between the two men changed. At the time, Duillier had also exchanged several letters with Leibniz.
Starting in 1699, other members of the Royal Society (of which Newton was a member) accused Leibniz of plagiarism, and the dispute broke out in full force in 1711. Newton's Royal Society proclaimed in a study that it was Newton who was the true discoverer and labelled Leibniz a fraud. This study was cast into doubt when it was later found that Newton himself wrote the study's concluding remarks on Leibniz. Thus began the bitter Newton v. Leibniz calculus controversy, which marred the lives of both Newton and Leibniz until the latter's death in 1716.
Newton is generally credited with the generalised binomial theorem, valid for any exponent. He discovered Newton's identities, Newton's method, classified cubic plane curves (polynomials of degree three in two variables), made substantial contributions to the theory of finite differences, and was the first to use fractional indices and to employ coordinate geometry to derive solutions to Diophantine equations. He approximated partial sums of the harmonic series by logarithms (a precursor to Euler's summation formula), and was the first to use power series with confidence and to revert power series.
He was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. In that day, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford had to be an ordained Anglican 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
From 1670 to 1672, Newton lectured on optics. During this period he investigated the refraction of light, demonstrating that a prism could decompose white light into a spectrum of colours, and that a lens and a second prism could recompose the multicoloured spectrum into white light.
He also showed that the coloured light does not change its properties by separating out a coloured beam and shining it on various objects. Newton noted that regardless of whether it was reflected or scattered or transmitted, it stayed the same colour. Thus, he observed that colour is the result of objects interacting with already-coloured light rather than objects generating the colour themselves. This is known as Newton's theory of colour.
From this work, he concluded that the lens of any refracting telescope would suffer from the dispersion of light into colours (chromatic aberration). As a proof of the concept, he constructed a telescope using a mirror as the objective to bypass that problem. Building the design, the first known functional reflecting telescope, today known as a Newtonian telescope, involved solving the problem of a suitable mirror material and shaping technique. Newton ground his own mirrors out of a custom composition of highly reflective speculum metal, using Newton's rings to judge the quality of the optics for his telescopes. In late 1668 he was able to produce this first reflecting telescope. In 1671, the Royal Society asked for a demonstration of his reflecting telescope. Their interest encouraged him to publish his notes On Colour, which he later expanded into his Opticks. When Robert Hooke criticised some of Newton's ideas, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. Newton and Hooke had brief exchanges in 1679-80, when Hooke, appointed to manage the Royal Society's correspondence, opened up a correspondence intended to elicit contributions from Newton to Royal Society transactions, which had the effect of stimulating Newton to work out a proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector (see Newton's law of universal gravitation - History and De motu corporum in gyrum). But the two men remained generally on poor terms until Hooke's death.
Newton argued that light is composed of particles or corpuscles, which were refracted by accelerating into a denser medium. He verged on soundlike waves to explain the repeated pattern of reflection and transmission by thin films (Opticks Bk.II, Props. 12), but still retained his theory of ‘fits’ that disposed corpuscles to be reflected or transmitted (Props.13). Later physicists instead favoured a purely wavelike explanation of light to account for the interference patterns, and the general phenomenon of diffraction. Today's quantum mechanics, photons and the idea of wave–particle duality bear only a minor resemblance to Newton's understanding of light.
In his Hypothesis of Light of 1675, Newton posited the existence of the ether to transmit forces between particles. The contact with the theosophist Henry More, revived his interest in alchemy. He replaced the ether with occult forces based on Hermetic ideas of attraction and repulsion between particles. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton's writings on alchemy, stated that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians." Newton's interest in alchemy cannot be isolated from his contributions to science; however, he did apparently abandon his alchemical researches (This was at a time when there was no clear distinction between alchemy and science.) Had he not relied on the occult idea of action at a distance, across a vacuum, he might not have developed his theory of gravity. (See also Isaac Newton's occult studies.)
In 1704, Newton published Opticks, in which he expounded his corpuscular theory of light. He considered light to be made up of extremely subtle corpuscles, that ordinary matter was made of grosser corpuscles and speculated that through a kind of alchemical transmutation "Are not gross Bodies and Light convertible into one another, ...and may not Bodies receive much of their Activity from the Particles of Light which enter their Composition?" Newton also constructed a primitive form of a frictional electrostatic generator, using a glass globe (Optics, 8th Query).
In 1679, Newton returned to his work on mechanics, i.e., gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets, with reference to Kepler's laws of planetary motion. This followed stimulation by a brief exchange of letters in 1679-80 with Hooke, who had been appointed to manage the Royal Society's correspondence, and who opened a correspondence intended to elicit contributions from Newton to Royal Society transactions. Newton's reawakening interest in astronomical matters received further stimulus by the appearance of a comet in the winter of 1680-1681, on which he corresponded with John Flamsteed. After the exchanges with Hooke, Newton worked out a proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector (see Newton's law of universal gravitation - History and De motu corporum in gyrum). Newton communicated his results to Edmond Halley and to the Royal Society in De motu corporum in gyrum, a tract written on about 9 sheets which was copied into the Royal Society's Register Book in December 1684. This tract contained the nucleus that Newton developed and expanded to form the Principia.
The Principia was published on 5 July 1687 with encouragement and financial help from Edmond Halley. In this work, Newton stated the three universal laws of motion that were not to be improved upon for more than 200 years. He used the Latin word gravitas (weight) for the effect that would become known as gravity, and defined the law of universal gravitation.
In the same work, Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis by 'first and last ratios', gave the first analytical determination (based on Boyle's law) of the speed of sound in air, inferred the oblateness of the spheroidal figure of the Earth, accounted for the precession of the equinoxes as a result of the Moon's gravitational attraction on the Earth's oblateness, initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more.
Newton made clear his heliocentric view of the solar system – developed in a somewhat modern way, because already in the mid-1680s he recognised the "deviation of the Sun" from the centre of gravity of the solar system. For Newton, it was not precisely the centre of the Sun or any other body that could be considered at rest, but rather "the common centre of gravity of the Earth, the Sun and all the Planets is to be esteem'd the Centre of the World", and this centre of gravity "either is at rest or moves uniformly forward in a right line" (Newton adopted the "at rest" alternative in view of common consent that the centre, wherever it was, was at rest).
Newton's postulate of an invisible force able to act over vast distances led to him being criticised for introducing "occult agencies" into science. Later, in the second edition of the Principia (1713), Newton firmly rejected such criticisms in a concluding General Scholium, writing that it was enough that the phenomena implied a gravitational attraction, as they did; but they did not so far indicate its cause, and it was both unnecessary and improper to frame hypotheses of things that were not implied by the phenomena. (Here Newton used what became his famous expression Hypotheses non fingo).
With the Principia, Newton became internationally recognised. He acquired a circle of admirers, including the Swiss-born mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, with whom he formed an intense relationship that lasted until 1693, when it abruptly ended, at the same time that Newton suffered a nervous breakdown.
In the 1690s, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible. Henry More's belief in the Universe and rejection of Cartesian dualism may have influenced Newton's religious ideas. A manuscript he sent to John Locke in which he disputed the existence of the Trinity was never published. Later works – The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) – were published after his death. He also devoted a great deal of time to alchemy (see above).
Newton was also a member of the Parliament of England from 1689 to 1690 and in 1701, but according to some accounts his only comments were to complain about a cold draught in the chamber and request that the window be closed.
Newton moved to London to take up the post of warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, a position that he had obtained through the patronage of Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. He took charge of England's great recoining, somewhat treading on the toes of Master Lucas (and securing the job of deputy comptroller of the temporary Chester branch for Edmond Halley). Newton became perhaps the best-known Master of the Mint upon Lucas' death in 1699, a position Newton held until his death. These appointments were intended as sinecures, but Newton took them seriously, retiring from his Cambridge duties in 1701, and exercising his power to reform the currency and punish clippers and counterfeiters. As Master of the Mint in 1717 in the "Law of Queen Anne" Newton moved the Pound Sterling from the silver standard to the gold standard by setting the bimetallic relationship between gold coins and the silver penny in favour of gold. This caused silver sterling coin to be melted and shipped out of Britain. Newton was made President of the Royal Society in 1703 and an associate of the French Académie des Sciences. In his position at the Royal Society, Newton made an enemy of John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, by prematurely publishing Flamsteed's Historia Coelestis Britannica, which Newton had used in his studies.
In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge. The knighthood is likely to have been motivated by political considerations connected with the Parliamentary election in May 1705, rather than any recognition of Newton's scientific work or services as Master of the Mint Newton was the first scientist ever to be knighted.
Towards the end of his life, Newton took up residence at Cranbury Park, near Winchester with his niece and her husband, until his death in 1727. Newton died in his sleep in London on 31 March 1727 [OS: 20 March 1726], and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His half-niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, served as his hostess in social affairs at his house on Jermyn Street in London; he was her "very loving Uncle," according to his letter to her when she was recovering from smallpox. Newton, a bachelor, had divested much of his estate to relatives during his last years, and died intestate.
After his death, Newton's body was discovered to have had massive amounts of mercury in it, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. Mercury poisoning could explain Newton's eccentricity in late life.
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