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Isaac Newton: Overview

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Isaac Newton: Overview | Outline Biography | The Early Years - 1642 - 1661 | Genius | Administrator of the Royal Society
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Sir Isaac Newton
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light.
– Alexander Pope

Isaac Newton was a 17th-Century English scientist and mathematician. He is widely proclaimed as the greatest scientist and one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. His main mathematical achievement was the invention of calculus, the analytical tool which torments schoolchildren but is the core of modern mathematics. He shares the honour of inventing it with the German Gottfried Leibniz. Newton's scientific achievements are in the field of Physics, where he more-or-less wrote the subject from the ground up. His Three Laws of Motion and his Law of Universal Gravitation are only part of a theory which explains everything from the motion of the planets around the sun and the trajectories of moon probes to the paths of bullets and the behaviour of snooker balls. In addition, his study of optics, while not as far-reaching as the theory of motion, set the stage for later discoveries.

The First Complete Scientist

Newton is, of course, best remembered for his scientific works. When asked to name one of his achievements, most people would probably pick his Theory of Gravity. Yet it could easily be argued that this was far from Newton's greatest contribution to the field of Natural Philosophy1.

Instead, it was the techniques that Newton brought to his studies that opened the doors to his discoveries. Newton was the first person to use mathematical analysis of precise observations to test out his theories. Although others, notably Galileo, had used observations before, Newton made this the mainstream practice. Indeed, almost the whole model of modern science, even down to the impersonal style of scientific papers, derives from his work.

Management Consultant

After taking over at the Mint, Isaac Newton carried out what amounts to the world's first time and motion study. This enabled him to identify the slowest points in production - the 'rate limiting steps' - and carefully introduce machinery that improved production from £15,000 to £100,000 of silver per week in less than three years.

It was to be nearly a century before Adam Smith came up with similar ideas.

Man of Mystery

Newton was notoriously secretive, both by nature and by necessity of being an Arian alchemist. Yet even leaving that aside, some events in his life remain unexplained. In 1693, he wrote a pair of letters to close friends, full of vague accusations and with a distinctly unbalanced sound to them. Although he recovered quickly, rumours circulated in Europe for another two years that the English genius was now a helpless madman. What caused his breakdown, and what happened during that time?

Then there is the mystery of the destroyed secrets. Newton burned a box of papers in 1727, just months before his death. Given the number of papers he left untouched that he would have regarded as highly incriminating during his lifetime, we can now only speculate on what was so controversial that he could not stand it to exist for posterity. One of the more innocuous suggestions is that it was copies of the Mint accounts. Others have suggested that he had been involved in black magic, perhaps a (super)natural extension of his alchemical research.

Child of the Revolution

Newton was born during a particularly tumultuous period of English history. That history would touch him, and he in turn would touch it. Aside from the Civil War, he claimed to have personally heard the guns of the Dutch invasion in 1667 and was tangentially involved in both the Glorious Revolution and the Union of England and Scotland. As a staunch Whig, his political fortunes rose and fell with his party's electoral successes (and the inclinations of the various monarchs).

The Man Who Killed Aristotle

Newton's influence on philosophy is, of course, enormous. Copernicus and Kepler already knew about gravity before Newton wrote about it, but they had nothing like Newton's complete theory.

In many ways, it was not the specifics of gravity, calculus or optics that were Newton's gift to posterity. Instead, an entire world view was dissected under his lens, and found wanting. By the time Newton died, a new world-view - Newtonism - in which everything had a rational explanation was replacing the ancient systems of Plato and Aristotle. Experiment, not reason, would be the arbiter of truth, and there was no longer a place for God in explanations of how the world worked. Newton was, however, a firm believer in God, although his beliefs about Jesus Christ were somewhat unorthodox.

When Laplace remarked to Napoleon - on the subject of God - 'I have no need for that hypothesis', it was a Newtonian world-view he was espousing2.

Isaac Newton: The Timeline

It may be of assistance to the reader to have the major events of Newton's life set out in a single timeline:

1642Born, 25 Dec
1646Mother leaves
1647Mary Smith born
1651Benjamin Smith born
1652Hannah Smith born
1659Newton leaves school and returns to Woolsthorpe
1661Enters Cambridge University
1663Buys prism; Wickins is room-mate; Quaestiones
1664Anni Mirabilis begin
1665Plague year in Cambridge; discovers generalised binomial theorem, starts work on calculus; graduates; leaves Cambridge Jun
1666Great Fire of London; Anni Mirabilis end; back in Cambridge Mar - Jul
1667Returns Cambridge May; Dutch invasion
1668Starts alchemy experiments, first visit to London
1669Builds telescope; Mercator publishes Logarithmothechnia; Newton writes De Analysi; asked for advice on travel; becomes Lucasian Prof
1671Presents telescope to Royal Soc
1672Voted into Royal Society, Theory of Light and Colours published, humiliates Hooke
1673Moves rooms
1675Gains exemption from priesthood as Lucasian Chair
1676Hooke accuses Newton of plagiarism; experiment shows Hooke's theory wrong
1677Fire in rooms
1679Mother dies after final illness (Newton nurses), more quarrels with Hooke
1680'Two' comets
1682Another comet
1683Wickens leaves Cambridge
1684Halley asks Newton about inverse square law - De Motu; Leibniz publishes calculus
1685Humphrey Newton becomes sub-sizar; Charles II dies
1687Publishes Principia; Cambridge rep to James II on Catholic monk issue
1688'Glorious Revolution' - James II expelled
1689England at war in Europe; Toleration Act; meets Fatio; elected MP
1691Appointed tax commissioner for Cambridge
1692Fatio ill
1693Sudden end of relationship with Fatio; believes he has transmuted gold; breakdown
1694Bank of England chartered
1696Becomes Warden of the Mint; clipped coins declared illegal; Catherine Barton moves in; first interview with Chaloner
1697Solves Bernoulli's problems; Chaloner alleges corruption in Mint
1699Becomes Warden of Mint
1701Elected MP again
1702William III dies
1703Montagu and Barton lovers; Hooke dies; Newton becomes RS president
1704Opticks published
1707Letters from Fatio (with French Prophets)
1711Solar eclipse
17132nd Ed Principia published
1714Queen Anne dies, George I king
1715Montagu dies; England on de facto gold standard
1716Leibniz dies
1717Barton marries Conduitt
1719Flamsteed dies
1722Health starts to fail
17263rd ed Principia published
1727Burns papers; dies
1728The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended published
1The word 'science' would not be coined for another century.2Napoleon's reply is less well known, though equally witty: 'Though it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.'

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