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Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)

Physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist

Isaac Newton was born on the 25th of December 1643, in Lincolnshire England. The year 1643 was a rather significant one. Newton’s father (Isaac Newton) and Galileo Galilee both passed away in this year.

Newton’s mother remarried a reverend when he was only 3 years old, so the rest of his life, Newton lived with his maternal grandmother.

Newton was never happy with his mother’s marriage and this caused many problems with their relationship.

He attended school until about 16 years when his mother removed him from school to become a farmer.

He hated farming, until his former school headmaster convinced his mother to send him back to school.

He was bullied quite a bit in school, but instead of fighting back like most kids did, he decided the best way to get revenge against them was to study hard. He became one of the school’s best students.

He attended Trinity College Cambridge when he was 18 years old while working in the college at the same time.

Some of the philosophers he studied were Aristotle, Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler.

When he was 22 years old, he made his first mathematical discovery, called the ‘generalized binomial theorem’. He continued to work on it, and eventually developed it, to what is known today as calculus.

Newton’s interest in maths, physics and astronomy began when he was in college, and during that period, he received both a bachelors and masters degree.

Unfortunately, soon after the 22-year-old Newton received his master’s degree in 1665, the college was closed down and the next two years Newton worked on the study of optics, gravitation, and calculus from home.

He started work on his theory of the three laws of motion when he was in college. During that time, he also worked on the nature of gravity, the way light used to diffract and various other mechanical forces.

Newton’s first law of motion was the “law of inertia” – that an object at rest will remain at rest unless an unbalanced force acts on it. An object that is moving (in motion) will continue at the same speed in the same direction until an unbalanced force acts on it. This means that objects keep on doing what they are doing.

Newton’s second law of motion stated that acceleration (or speed) is produced when a certain force acts on a mass (weight). So a heavier object would need more force to push it that a lighter one.

The second law shows the relation between force, weight (mass) and acceleration (speed). This is mathematically expressed as F = MA (Force =Mass X Acceleration).

Newton’s third law of motion stated that ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite re-action’. This means that if you push an object there is a force that pushes back which is equal, only in the opposite direction.

His theory of gravity sprung from the famous story of the apple falling from the tree. In reality though, this story is slightly different. Newton was not sitting under the apple tree when the apple fell, but was sitting at the window of his home when he saw the apple fall.

Some believe that Newton invented this story up to make himself look smart. Anyways, the apple falling from the tree made him wonder why it fell directly straight, and not sideways or upwards. This was the foundation of his theory of gravity.

Newton seemed to have a rather difficult friendship with another scientist Wilhelm Leibniz.

Both of them were working on their versions of the theory of calculus and in the end Leibniz got more support for his theory than Newton.

Even so, all his great work in mathematics led to him being elected Lucasian professor of mathematics when he was just 26 years old.

From the age of 27 to about 30, he switched fields and started lecturing in optics. Optics is a special area of physics that studies the properties and behaviour of light.

The common laboratory experiment of sending white light through a prism to separate it into the seven colours, and then sending the same light through a second prism to transform the colours back into white light was first discovered by Newton.

Based on the experiment Newton devised a reflecting telescope that could clear show an object without the light dispersing into various colours to make it less clear.

Newton’s experiments led him to theorize on the properties of light. He believed that light was made up of particles. However, other physicists believe that light is made up of waves. Today, the study of quantum mechanics believes that light is a combination of particles and waves (called the “wave-particle duality”).

When he was around 36 years, we restarted his work on gravitation and theorized on its effects on orbiting planets. This was the beginning of his laws of motion, which he described in his academic paper titled Principia.

Newton’s law of universal gravitation described the gravitation attraction of bodies with mass, for example, like the gravitational pull between the earth and moon.

In the course of all these debates and experiments with science, Newton also had the time to read the entire Bible and address the written interpretation of its lessons and stories.

He also conducted many experiments in the area of alchemy. In those days there was not much of a separation between the study of alchemy and chemistry. Today, alchemy is not considered scientific.

At the age of 58 Newton published one of his major theories – the theory of thermodynamics, which is known today as “Newton’s Law of Cooling”.

During his lifetime, despite his greatness, his views and sometimes the way he behaved caused him to have many enemies. Even so, Queen Anne of England knighted him in 1705, and from then on, until now he is referred to as Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton did not appear to have ever been married, or had children, even though he was at sometime engaged to a woman. He died in his sleep in London on the 31st of March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.