'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

20 January 2011

Sir Isaac Newton

'I don't know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'
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' What Des-Cartes did was a good step.  You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration.  If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.'
    Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor (above), near Grantham in Lincolnshire on Christmas Day 1642,(4 January 1643 in the modern Gregorian calendar). He came from a family of farmers but his father had died in October 1642. His father was wealthy, but uneducated. His mother Hannah remarried Barnabas Smith a minister, when Isaac was two years old. He was virtually an orphan in the care of his grandmother, having an unhappy childhood unloved by his grandfather. In 1653 his stepfather died, and he then lived with his mother, grandmother, half-brother, and two half-sisters. He began school in Grantham. Being five miles from his home, he lodged with another family. Described as 'idle' and 'inattentive', he was taken from school by his wealthy mother to manage her estate, but he showed no talent, or interest in this.
    An uncle persuaded his mother that he should attend university so Isaac returned to school in 1660, lodging with the headmaster of the school, and apparently showed academic promise. Newton entered Trinity College Cambridge, on 5 June 1661. He was older than most of his fellow students but, to receive an allowance toward expenses, he acted as a servant to other students. Humphrey Babington, a distant relative was a Fellow at Trinity, and possibly his patron. Newton's aimed at a law degree. Although dominated by the philosophy of Aristotle he studied Descartes, Hobbes, and Boyle. Copernican astronomy of Galileo attracted him and also Kepler's optics. In a book titled Certain Philosophical Questions, he wrote"Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth".

    Newton's interest in mathematics possibly began in 1663 when he bought an astrology book at a fair but could not understand the mathematics. He found that he also knew nothing of geometry, so he read Euclid's Elements and continued to explore. His first original mathematical work seems to have grown out of reading Wallis’s Algebra. Newton was elected a scholar on 28 April 1664 and received his bachelor's degree in April 1665. His scientific genius had not emerged, but it did suddenly when the plague closed the University in the summer of 1665 and he had to return to Lincolnshire. In the next two years he began revolutionary advances in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy and he was still under 25.

Newton's first relationship may have been his 20-year roommate John Wickens, while he was a student and professor at Cambridge. Wickens and Newton moved in together to escape the unruly Cambridge student life. John also joined the faculty and later he was laboratory assistant and secretary to Newton.

    When Cambridge reopened he was elected to a minor fellowship at Trinity College but, after being awarded his Master's Degree, he was elected to a major fellowship. In 1669 Barrow sent Newton's text De Analysi to London, but it was not recognised. Barrow resigned and was replaced by Newton to the Lucasian Chair, (held now by Stephen Hawking) where as professor his first work was on optics and this was the topic of his first lecture course in 1670. He concluded that white light is not a simple entity for when a beam of sunlight went through a glass prism he noted the spectrum of colours formed.
    In 1672 Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and published his first scientific paper on light and colour, which was attacked by some. He wanted fame and recognition yet feared criticism and the easiest way to avoid being criticised was to publish nothing. Newton turned in on himself and away from the Royal Society delaying publication of his full optical researches until 1704. Another argument led to a nervous breakdown and when his mother died and he withdrew further into his shell, mixing little with people for many years.

Newton's law of universal gravitation:-
... all matter attracts all other matter with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. 

    Newton's greatest work was in physics and celestial mechanics, which led to his theory of universal gravitation. By 1666 Newton had early versions of his three laws of motion. Newton's novel idea of 1666 was to imagine that the Earth's gravity influenced the Moon, counter- balancing its centrifugal force. From his law of centrifugal force and Kepler's third law of planetary motion, Newton deduced the inverse-square law. Halley persuaded Newton to write a full treattise of his new physics and in 1687 he published the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica or Principia as it is known, which is recognised as the greatest scientific book ever written. He analysed the motion of bodies and the results were applied to orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendulums, and free-fall near the Earth. He further demonstrated that all heavenly bodies mutually attract one another. Newton explained the eccentric orbits of comets, the tides and their variations, the precession of the Earth's axis, and motion of the Moon as perturbed by the gravity of the Sun. This work made Newton an international leader in scientific research. 

    James II became king of Great Britain on 6 February 1685. He had become a Roman Catholic in 1669, however rebellions arose. Newton was a staunch Protestant and when the King tried to insist that a Benedictine monk be given a degree without taking any examinations or swearing the required oaths, Newton opposed this and when William of Orange landed in November 1688 and James fled to France the University of Cambridge elected Newton, now famous for his strong defence of the university, as one of their two members to the Convention Parliament on 15 January 1689. Newton was seen as a leader of the university and one of the most eminent mathematicians in the world. However, his election to Parliament let him see a life in London, which appealed to him more than the academic world in Cambridge.

    Newton never married and formed one notable close relationship with a young handsome mathematician Fatio de Duillier (left), a Swiss-born mathematician resident in London. Fatio was attracted to science celebrities. Some passionate letters between the two men survive, recording several trips and overnight lodgings these men had together. Fatio was 25 and Newton was 46 at the beginning of their four-year friendship. This was six years after Newton had parted from Wickens. Soon after Fatio moved to Europe Newton suffered a second nervous breakdown in 1693, and retired from research.Newton's relations with Fatio had undergone a crisis. Fatio became ill; then family and financial problems threatened to call him home to Switzerland, which distressed Newton enormously. In 1693 he suggested Fatio move to Cambridge, and Newton would support him, but this did not eventuate. Through early 1693 the intensity of Newton's unsettled spirit grew until without surviving explanation, both the relationship and correspondence ended. Four months later, Samuel Pepys and John Locke, both personal friends of Newton, received bitter letters of accusation. Pepys was was told that Newton would see him no more and Locke was accused of trying to entangle him with women. Many theories evolved as to the cause of the breakdown: poisoning from his alchemy experiments; frustration with his researches; the ending of his one profound relationship with Fatio; and problems with his religious beliefs linked with depression, that he suffered most of his life.

 Newton became Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 and Master in 1699, but did not resign his positions at Cambridge until 1701. He became a very rich man. In 1703 he was elected president of the Royal Society and was re-elected each year until his death. He was knighted in 1705 by Queen Anne, the first scientist to be so honoured for his work.
The story that Newton's theory of universal gravitation was prompted by a falling apple, is probably based on fact although it may not have fallen on his head. The first account was recorded by William Stukeley following a dinner.

'The weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under shade of some apple-trees, only he and myself. Amidst other discourses, 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 contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself. Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth's centre.'
 Newton's Grave and Memorial in Westminster Abbey, and Death Mask  below.
Other Scientist's Biographies here.

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