Isaac Newton - Facts, Biography and Laws

Isaac Newton - Facts, Biography and Laws

Isaac Newton is best know for his theory about the law of gravity, but his “Principia Mathematica” (1686) with its three laws of motion greatly influenced the Enlightenment in Europe. Born in 1643 in Woolsthorpe, England, Sir Isaac Newton began developing his theories on light, calculus and celestial mechanics while on break from Cambridge University. Years of research culminated with the 1687 publication of “Principia,” a landmark work that established the universal laws of motion and gravity. Newton’s second major book, “Opticks,” detailed his experiments to determine the properties of light. Also a student of Biblical history and alchemy, the famed scientist served as president of the Royal Society of London and master of England’s Royal Mint until his death in 1727.

Isaac Newton: Early Life and Education

Isaac Newton was born on January 4, 1643, in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. The son of a farmer who died three months before he was born, Newton spent most of his early years with his maternal grandmother after his mother remarried. His education was interrupted by a failed attempt to turn him into a farmer, and he attended the King’s School in Grantham before enrolling at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College in 1661.

Newton studied a classical curriculum at Cambridge, but he became fascinated by the works of modern philosophers such as René Descartes, even devoting a set of notes to his outside readings he titled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions”). When the Great Plague shuttered Cambridge in 1665, Newton returned home and began formulating his theories on calculus, light and color, his farm the setting for the supposed falling apple that inspired his work on gravity.

Isaac Newton’s Telescope and Studies on Light

Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 and was elected a minor fellow. He constructed the first reflecting telescope in 1668, and the following year he received his Master of Arts degree and took over as Cambridge’s Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Asked to give a demonstration of his telescope to the Royal Society of London in 1671, he was elected to the Royal Society the following year and published his notes on optics for his peers.

Through his experiments with refraction, Newton determined that white light was a composite of all the colors on the spectrum, and he asserted that light was composed of particles instead of waves. His methods drew sharp rebuke from established Society member Robert Hooke, who was unsparing again with Newton’s follow-up paper in 1675. Known for his temperamental defense of his work, Newton engaged in heated correspondence with Hooke before suffering a nervous breakdown and withdrawing from the public eye in 1678. In the following years, he returned to his earlier studies on the forces governing gravity and dabbled in alchemy.

Isaac Newton and the Law of Gravity

In 1684, English astronomer Edmund Halley paid a visit to the secluded Newton. Upon learning that Newton had mathematically worked out the elliptical paths of celestial bodies, Halley urged him to organize his notes. The result was the 1687 publication of “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which established the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravity. Newton’s three laws of motion state that (1) Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it; (2) Force equals mass times acceleration: F=MA and (3) For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

“Principia” propelled Newton to stardom in intellectual circles, eventually earning universal acclaim as one of the most important works of modern science. His work was a foundational part of the European Enlightenment.

With his newfound influence, Newton opposed the attempts of King James II to reinstitute Catholic teachings at English Universities. King James II was replaced by his protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange as part of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and Newton was elected to represent Cambridge in Parliament in 1689. Newton moved to London permanently after being named warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, earning a promotion to master of the Mint three years later. Determined to prove his position wasn’t merely symbolic, Newton moved the pound sterling from the silver to the gold standard and sought to punish counterfeiters.

The death of Hooke in 1703 allowed Newton to take over as president of the Royal Society, and the following year he published his second major work, “Opticks.” Composed largely from his earlier notes on the subject, the book detailed Newton’s painstaking experiments with refraction and the color spectrum, closing with his ruminations on such matters as energy and electricity. In 1705, he was knighted by Queen Anne of England.

Isaac Newton: Founder of Calculus?

Around this time, the debate over Newton’s claims to originating the field of calculus exploded into a nasty dispute. Newton had developed his concept of “fluxions” (differentials) in the mid 1660s to account for celestial orbits, though there was no public record of his work. In the meantime, German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz formulated his own mathematical theories and published them in 1684. As president of the Royal Society, Newton oversaw an investigation that ruled his work to be the founding basis of the field, but the debate continued even after Leibniz’s death in 1716. Researchers later concluded that both men likely arrived at their conclusions independent of one another.

Death of Isaac Newton

Newton was also an ardent student of history and religious doctrines, and his writings on those subjects were compiled into multiple books that were published posthumously. Having never married, Newton spent his later years living with his niece at Cranbury Park near Winchester, England. He died in his sleep on March 31, 1727, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

A giant even among the brilliant minds that drove the Scientific Revolution, Newton is remembered as a transformative scholar, inventor and writer. He eradicated any doubts about the heliocentric model of the universe by establishing celestial mechanics, his precise methodology giving birth to what is known as the scientific method. Although his theories of space-time and gravity eventually gave way to those of Albert Einstein, his work remains the bedrock on which modern physics was built.

Isaac Newton Quotes

  • “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
  • “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”
  • “What we know is a drop, what we don't know is an ocean.”
  • “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who sets the planets in motion.”
  • “No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess.”

Sir Isaac Newton: Quotes, Facts & Biography

Sir Isaac Newton contributed significantly to the field of science over his lifetime. He invented calculus and provided a clear understanding of optics. But his most significant work had to do with forces, and specifically with the development of a universal law of gravity. [See also our overview of Famous Astronomers and great scientists from many fields who have contributed to the rich history of discoveries in astronomy.]

Newton's life

Born to a poor family in Woolsthorpe, England, in 1642, Isaac Newton attended Trinity College in Cambridge, England only after it became apparent that he would never be a successful farmer. While there, he took interest in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy. After his graduation, he began to teach at the college, and was appointed as the second Lucasian Chair there. Today, the chair is considered the most renowned academic chair in the world.

In 1689, Newton was elected as a member of parliament for the university. In 1703, he was elected as president of the Royal Society, a fellowship of scientists that still exists today. He was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. He never married.

Newton died in 1727, at the age of 84. After his death, his body was moved to a more prominent place in Westminster Abbey. During the exhumation, large amounts of mercury were found in the scientist's system, likely due to his work with alchemy.

Motion in the universe

The popular myth tells of an apple falling from a tree in his garden, which brought Newton to an understanding of forces, particularly gravity. Whether the incident actually happened is unknown, but historians doubt the event &mdash if it ocurred &mdash was the driving force in Newton’s thought process. His most famous work came with the publication of his "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), generally called Principia. In it, he determined the three laws of motion for the universe.

The first describes how objects move at the same velocity unless an outside force acts upon it. (A force is something that causes or changes motion.) Thus, an object sitting on a table remains on the table until a force &ndash the push of a hand, or gravity &ndash acts upon it. Similarly, an object travels at the same speed unless it interacts with another force, such as friction.

His second law of motion provided a calculation for how forces interact. The force acting on an object is equal to the object's mass times the acceleration it undegoes.

Newton's third law states that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If one body applies a force on a second, then the second body exerts a force of the same strength on the first, in the opposite direction. [VIDEO: Final Nail in Newton's Theory]

From all of this, Newton calculated the universal law of gravity. He found that as two bodies move farther away from one another, the gravitational attraction between them decreases by the inverse of the square of the distance. Thus, if the objects are twice as far apart, the gravitational force is only a fourth as strong if they are three times as far apart, it is only a ninth of its previous power.

These laws helped scientists understand more about the motions of planets in the solar system, and of the moon around Earth.

A scientist across disciplines

While a student, Newton was forced to take a two year hiatus when plague closed Trinity college. At home, he continued to work with optics, using a prism to separate white light, and became the first person to argue that white light was a mixture of many types of rays, rather than a single entity. He continued working with light and color over the next few years, and published his findings in &ldquoOpticks&rdquo in 1704.

Disturbed by the problems with telescopes at the time, he invented the reflecting telescope, grinding the mirror and building the tube himself. Relying on a mirror rather than lenses, the telescope presented a sharper image than refracting telescopes at the time. Modern techniques have reduced the problems caused by lenses, but large telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope use mirrors. [Stacking Up the 10 Biggest Telescopes on Earth]

As a student, Newton studied the most advanced mathematical texts of his time. While on hiatus, he continued to study mathematics, laying the ground for differential and integral calculus. He united many techniques that had previously been considered seperately, such as finding areas, tangents, and the lengths of curves. He wrote De Methodis Serierum et Fluxionum in 1671, but was unable to find a publisher.

Newton also established a cohesive scientific method, to be used across disciplines. Previous explorations of science varied depending on the field. Newton established a set format for experimentation still used today.

Isaac Newton quotes

"Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica verita."
(Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.)
&mdashWritten in the margin of a notebook while a student at Cambridge. In Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest (1980), 89.

"Genius is patience."
&mdashThe Homiletic Review, Vol. 83-84 (1922), Vol. 84, 290.

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
&mdashLetter to Robert Hooke (5 Feb 1675-6).In H. W. Turnbull (ed.), The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 1, 1661-1675 (1959), Vol. 1, 416.

"I see I have made my self a slave to Philosophy."
&mdashLetter to Henry Oldenburg (18 Nov 1676). In H. W. Turnbull (ed.), The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 1676-1687 (1960), Vol. 2, 182.

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, 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."
&mdashFirst reported in Joseph Spence, Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, of Books and Men (1820), Vol. 1 of 1966 edn, sect. 1259, p. 462

"To any action there is always an opposite and equal reaction in other words, the actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and always opposite in direction."
&mdash The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687)

"Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things."
&mdash'Fragments from a Treatise on Revelation". In Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (1974), 120.


Isaac Newton Facts Biography Laws History

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Isaac Newton: life, discoveries, rivalries and the truth about the apple

Born a farm boy, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) emerged as one of the greatest minds of the 17th century, a polymath who discovered the laws of motion, described gravity, and later became a politician, president of the Royal Society and Master of the Mint. Writing for BBC History Revealed, science writer Jheni Osman explores the colourful life of a cantankerous scientist

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Published: June 17, 2020 at 10:30 am

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This became one of the most well-known quotes from the world of science, uttered over 300 years ago by the great mathematician and physicist. His supporters would say it showed him to be a humble man, attributing his great successes to his predecessors and contemporaries.

But those that knew the true nature of the power-hungry scientist thought otherwise, viewing the quote as a dig at one of his greatest rivals – physicist Robert Hooke – who was shorter than Newton and suffered from a stoop.

Born: 4 January 1643 (new style calendar 25 December 1642 old style) in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, England

Died: 13 March 1727 in Kensington, Middlesex, England

Remembered for: Best known for his discovery of gravity and an apocryphal encounter with an apple, Newton was a widely influential scientist who achievements also include advances in optics, calculus and celestial mechanics.

Isaac Newton’s early life

Cantankerous, ambitious, and prone to intense outbursts, he entered the world with his fists at the ready. Born prematurely in a sleepy hamlet in Lincolnshire, he was a tiny baby, who avoided the dreaded plague that was ravaging the country at the time. His father died three months after he was born, and he later felt spurned by his family, after he was packed off to live with his grandmother while his mother married a reverend from a nearby village – a man he came to loathe.

Battling through his teenage years, Newton’s salvation was his studies. While his mother hoped he’d take over the family farm, his genius in the classroom didn’t go unnoticed and a life of academia beckoned. At Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton found a new father figure.

Isaac Barrow was the first professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He immediately recognised the talent of his new prodigy and tasked him with solving one of the big unsolved problems of the day – calculus, the study of how things change. Without calculus, we wouldn’t have the tools to calculate everything from economic change right through to climate change.

What were Isaac Newton’s discoveries and achievements?

Over the years, Newton became a true polymath – jack of all trades, and master of many. He believed that discovery wasn’t just found by reading textbooks, but through individual observation and experimentation, and took his beliefs to the extreme – for example, he once stuck a blunt needle into his eye socket to see what the effect would be. Fortunately, his eye recovered.

Explore more scientific history

He wasn’t finished with the world of optics, though. During the particularly plague-infested year of 1665 when the University of Cambridge closed, Newton returned to his home village of Woolsthorpe, locking himself away in his laboratory in order to tinker around with telescopes. This isolated period of study proved fruitful, as he began to realise the design limitations of the traditional instruments, questioning why no-one had tried replacing the lenses with mirrors.

He found that this simple switch created a telescope that was ten times smaller than traditional ones and much more powerful.

Elated at his discovery, he approached the Royal Society – an elite group of scientists that met at Gresham College in London. They were impressed. So Newton plucked up the courage to share his theories on light and colour.

But Newton’s success was short-lived. Though he came up with the concept that white light is composed of a spectrum of colours, his muddled methodology confused fellow scientists who tried to replicate his results – without success. The feedback wasn’t good, and Newton didn’t take well to the criticism – particularly from Robert Hooke, who was to become one of his greatest rivals. Pride dented, Newton retreated back into isolation.

Devoid of distractions, unshackled from the constraints of university life, Newton explored numerous different areas of science, from alchemy (the medieval forerunner to chemistry) to astronomy. The reflecting device he invented to observe the distance between the Moon and stars was essentially the same as the subsequent Hadley’s quadrant – an important navigational instrument used in shipping – but only astronomer Edmond Halley recognised the genius of Newton’s ideas. Only after his death was a description of the device found among his papers.

During this time, Newton also crucially came up with what many consider to be the foundation of modern-day physics, publishing Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. Arch-rival Robert Hooke had published a book An Attempt to Prove the Motion of the Earth from Observations in 1674, in which he wrote, “All bodies whatsoever that are put into a direct and simple motion, will continue to move forward in a straight line, till they are by some effectual power deflected.”

Over a decade later, Newton published Principia, which revealed his theories on calculus and universal gravitation, and his three laws of motion. But Newton’s first law of motion sounded suspiciously like Hooke’s theory. This was just one of the times Newton tried to outdo Hooke.

Newton and the apple

To most people, Newton’s name is synonymous with an apple falling on his head, which apparently helped him to come up with his innovative theory on gravity. The story goes that Newton was sitting under an apple tree in his garden back home in Woolsthorpe when an apple fell directly onto his head, causing him to have a light-bulb moment on how gravity works in space.

In reality, Newton was never on the receiving end of an apple – he probably just watched one fall to the ground as he was working. It does, however, make for a good tale. Newton certainly did come up with the theory, but in order to do this, he stood on the shoulders of a former giant.

In the late 16th century, the Italian polymath Galileo reputedly conducted a series of experiments from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa to work out how different objects fall. He discovered that objects made from the same material but of different masses fall at the same speed.

Newton’s bright idea was to realise that this phenomenon also worked in space. Again, he stood on the shoulders of another giant by applying calculus to astronomer Johannes Kepler’s first law of planetary motion. From this he worked out that the force of gravity needed to lock the planets in their orbits around the Sun. So, Newton made a vital contribution to science when he realised that the whole universe is governed by the exact same law of gravity, whether it’s a falling apple or an orbiting planet.

But he wasn’t alone in his ground-breaking discoveries. In Europe at that time, the Scientific Revolution was well underway, Alongside Newton, other scientific greats such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler were instrumental in the emergence of modern science.

What and when was the Scientific Revolution?

From around the 15th to the end of the 17th centuries, developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry transformed society’s view of the world around us. No longer did people simply theorise how the world worked, but they used individual experience and scientific experimentation to gain actual knowledge.

Most historians claim this Scientific Revolution was kick-started by mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who came up with his heliocentric view that the Sun is at the centre of our Solar System, and not Earth. Elsewhere in Europe, scientists carried out various experiments and came up with ingenious inventions. Galileo Galilei worked out that objects of different mass fall at the same speed, and he improved the telescope, which led to his many astronomical discoveries – such as spotting mountains and valleys on the surface of the Moon, and discovering the four largest moons of the planet Jupiter.

And, by Newton’s time, when once people believed that the world was composed of four qualities (Empedocles’ earth, water, air and fire), scientists now recognised that it was made of atoms, or ‘corpuscles’ (small material bodies). This Scientific Revolution was truly an era of scientific enlightenment – perfectly summed up by the Royal Society’s motto: ‘Nullius in verba’, which basically means ‘take nobody’s word for it.

Newton the politician

But the ever-ambitious and confident Newton didn’t just limit himself to the world of science. Newton made many an enemy in the scientific world, but also in politics. He even took on James VII and II when he tried to Catholicise the University of Cambridge. He successfully fended off the King’s reforms, and entered the world of politics, becoming an MP in 1689. While his two years in office didn’t have a lasting effect on politics, Newton did make a huge impact on the economy.

Throughout the 17th century, Britain’s finances were in tatters. Up to one in every ten coins was forged, and the metal in them was often worth more than the value of the coin itself. In 1696, he became Warden of the Royal Mint, and set about recalling old currency, issuing new coins, and hunting down counterfeiters. His dogged determination to rid the country of fraud so impressed the powers that be that in 1699, he was appointed Master of the Mint for the remainder of his life.

Financial controller, political pundit, and genius scientist – an impressive CV and an amazing career considering he began life as a farm boy. But this wasn’t enough for Newton. He wanted to ensure his scientific legacy and secure his spot in the annals of science.

In 1703, Newton was elected as the President of the Royal Society. Taking advantage of his position, he set about trying to callously tarnish the reputations of some of his contemporaries. He tried to remove Robert Hooke from the history books, he antagonised John Flamsteed by publishing the astronomer’s catalogue of the stars without his permission, and he quarrelled with philosopher Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus. The feud between the two men only ended on Newton’s deathbed.

Newton died on 20 March 1727 at the age of 84. Though he never had children, he ensured that his legacy would never be forgotten by having his tombstone inscribed: “Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton”.

Newton and religion

During the Middle Ages, the Church was incredibly powerful, keeping the aristocracy under their thumb. In the 14th and 15th centuries, a group of so-called ‘humanists’ was formed in France and Italy – they were not opposed to the Church, merely intent on worshipping God away from the restraints of priests. This was the birth of a wave of newly enlightened thinkers.

By Newton’s time, religion was still a big part of life, but scientists were trying to understand how God fitted into the picture – alongside their research.

Despite being a scientific revolutionary, Newton was devoutly religious. Aside from his scientific works, he wrote numerous theological papers, which dealt with the literal translation of the Bible. He believed in a monotheistic God, and spent many hours trying to glean hidden messages from the Holy Bible. But his strong beliefs stemmed from his investigation of the natural world.

Whether his mind was truly able to align religion and science, no-one knows for sure. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his monument stands by the choir screen, near his tomb.


The Faith Behind the Famous: Isaac Newton

Alexander Pope’s well-known epitaph epitomized Isaac Newton’s fame. Even in Newton’s lifetime, his contemporaries’ adulation verged on worship. Following his death in April 1727, Newton lay in state in Westminster Abbey for a week. At the funeral, his pall was borne by three earls, two dukes, and the Lord Chancellor. Voltaire observed, “He was buried like a king who had done well by his subjects.” No scientist before or since has been so revered and interred with such high honor.

Who was this man whose stature has dominated the scientific landscape for three centuries? Why did his achievements have such an impact on society? What role did Newton’s faith play in his life and work?

Newton’s Faith

For Newton the world of science was by no means the whole of life. He spent more time on theology than on science indeed, he wrote about 1.3 million words on biblical subjects. Yet this vast legacy lay hidden from public view for two centuries until the auction of his nonscientific writings in 1936.

Newton’s understanding of God came primarily from the Bible, which he studied for days and weeks at a time. He took special interest in miracles and prophecy, calculating dates of Old Testament books and analyzing their texts to discover their authorship. In a manuscript on rules for interpreting prophecy, Newton noted the similar goals of the scientist and the prophecy expositor: simplicity and unity. He condemned the “folly of interpreters who foretell times and things by prophecy,” since the purpose of prophecy was to demonstrate God’s providence in history when “after [prophecies] were fulfilled, they might be interpreted by events.”

A member of the Anglican church, Newton attended services and participated in special projects, such as paying for the distribution of Bibles among the poor, and serving on a commission to build fifty new churches in the London area. Yet Newton seldom made public pronouncements regarding his theology. He is remembered instead for his pioneering scientific achievements.

Birth and Childhood

In June 1642 England began to suffer its first civil war. The year also witnessed both the death of Galileo in Italy and the birth of Isaac Newton in England.

Newton’s life took place against the backdrop of three locations within one hundred miles of each other: Lincolnshire, Cambridge, and London. Newton’s parents were country folk who lived on a small farm in Woolsthorpe north of London. Hannah Newton’s husband died soon after their marriage, at age 36. On Christmas Day, 1642, friends came to assist the young widow with the birth of her son Isaac. The baby was very premature and given little hope of survival he was so small he could have been fitted into a quart pot.

When Isaac was 3, his mother—a strong, self-reliant woman—remarried and moved to a new home in the next village. The child stayed on at the isolated house, cared for by his grandmother, for the next eight years. Recent biographers have seen that separation from his mother, between the ages of 3 and 10, as influential in forming the suspicious, neurotic personality of the adult Newton.

In 1654, at the age of 12, Isaac entered the Old King’s School in Grantham, which had a good reputation for preparing students to enter Cambridge and Oxford. The boy reached the top of his class, became interested in chemistry, and continued building intricate mechanisms, including a windmill and a water clock. Instead of taking part in the rougher games at school, young Isaac became an avid reader. Early in life he developed a self-sufficiency and resourcefulness that served him well in later years of research.

After four years Isaac returned home to help his mother with the farm. Despite good intentions, he spent more time keeping a notebook of observations on nature than looking after the animals.

After two years of frustration his mother decided he should complete his course at Old King’s to prepare for the university.

Studies at Cambridge

In June 1661 Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge, a community of four hundred scholars and students that was his home for most of the next thirty-five years.

The official curriculum was devoted mainly to Aristotelian philosophy—logic, rhetoric, and ethics. It developed Newton’s formidable ability to demolish the arguments of anyone who crossed him. The prescribed course also included mathematics, Latin, and Greek.

Newton studied physics and optics under Dr. Isaac Barrow, an excellent mathematician and Greek scholar. He was the first to recognize his student’s genius, and he introduced him to telescopes and current theories of light. The slumbering giant of Newton’s intellect suddenly awoke.

Most important for Newton, however, was the unofficial curriculum, his own readings. He explored the new philosophical world of the seventeenth century, and then moved to prominent scientific works, mastering Kepler’s Optics and nearly everything written about light. Since that subject called for experimentation, grinding lenses and building ingenious apparatus, it was made to order for his mathematical mind and deft fingers. He observed the stars and made notes that later led to a new theory of light and color. During his last undergraduate year, investigating mathematics and dynamics, Newton made phenomenal speed toward the frontiers of knowledge in both fields. In short, he was essentially self-taught in a wide range of subjects.

Scientific Developments

In 1665 flea—bearing rats carried the dread bubonic plague into congested London, where a fifth of the population died that summer. As the plague spread, students and teachers at Cambridge were sent home. Newton, with his new bachelor’s degree, packed his notebooks for a return to Woolsthorpe.

During the next two years, his reading and thinking, experimenting and writing, laid the foundations for his epoch-making work in three major areas: mathematics, optics, and celestial dynamics. Having invented the binomial theorem, Newton devised a method of calculation that later developed into calculus. He also discovered that white light contains the whole spectrum of colors, and he formulated the inverse square law for orbiting heavenly bodies.

In short, during this period Newton became one of the leading mathematicians and scientists in Europe. How did he do it? Among other abilities was the unusual gift of holding in his mind a mental problem for hours, days, and weeks until he had solved it.

Alchemy and Achievement

Cambridge University reopened in the spring of 1667. Two years later, at the age of 26, Newton was appointed to the prestigious Lucasian chair of mathematics, a professorship he held for the next three decades. With minimal teaching responsibilities, he turned his attention to optics and constructed a reflecting telescope it caused a sensation when it reached London in 1671. Soon he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He read before the society his New Theory about Light and Colors.

During the next decade Newton’s public scientific career dwindled as he devoted most of his time to private studies of chemistry, alchemy, and theology. Alchemists had long pursued a method to transmute base metals into gold, and during thirty years in Cambridge Newton labored for thousands of hours with his furnace as he pored over alchemical books. He communicated virtually nothing about his private passion to others. The extent of Newton’s interest in alchemy, long an embarrassment to his admirers, became generally known only in 1936 when his alchemical writings of about 650,000 words became public.

In April 1686 Newton officially presented to the Royal Society his magnificent three-part Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Written in Latin and known as the Principia, it was comprehensible mainly to mathematicians. Here the scientist demonstrated his greatest discovery, the law of universal gravitation: Every particle in the universe is attracted to every other particle by a force proportional to a product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them F=(G m1 m2)/r2. Also presented were his three laws of motion. Among scientific writings, Newton’s Principia is unexcelled. It firmly established the new scientific approach to explaining natural forces and was soon taught at Cambridge. Nevertheless, Newton’s views were opposed on the Continent for several decades.

In 1693 the scientist suffered a nervous depression that lasted two years. It is likely that decades of overwork were taking their toll, possibly augmented by mercury poisoning from years of alchemy experiments.

Powerful Public Figure

During the last thirty years of Newton’s life the brilliant, retiring scholar became an influential public figure, attaining and ruthlessly wielding power.

In 1696 the king appointed Newton Warden of the Mint, and Newton took charge of the recoinage needed to stabilize a monetary crisis. He became an efficient administrator and shrewd political operator. He was responsible for prosecuting “coiners” who debased the silver coins by clipping their edges—an offense punishable by hanging. Newton took to the task with grim diligence. In 1699 he was appointed Master of the Mint. Two years later he resigned his professorship at Cambridge and moved to London where his niece Catherine Barton kept house for him.

In 1703 Newton was elected president of the Royal Society, which for two decades he ruled with an iron hand, taking offense at all who opposed his views. In 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne. Newtonian science gradually swept the field as Newton secured for his bright young disciples positions where they could teach and write the science textbooks. Over the years he engaged in two long, bitter feuds with other scientists, one with the German mathematician Leibniz over who invented the calculus.

His Scientific Legacy

Isaac Newton died on March 20, 1727, at the age of 85, after several years of enforced rest. His death was regarded as a national loss. A vast industry grew up dedicated to his memory—medals, poems, statues. (Submerged in the torrent of adulation were criticisms of internal contradictions in his writings, his atomistic theory of matter, and his mechanistic world-view.) Newton had became a national hero as well as the model scientist. While Copernicus and Kepler had died in obscurity, and Galileo under house arrest, Newton enjoyed success—largely because his discovery of one simple kind of attractive force (universal gravitation) could explain the motions of the planets, moon, and tides.

In the twentieth century, Einstein’s expanding universe and Heisenberg’s indeterminacy have undermined Newton’s clocklike model of nature. Nevertheless, mathematical physicist Stephen Hawking, a current Lucasian professor at Cambridge, writes that “Newton’s theory will never be outmoded. Designed to predict the motions of the heavenly bodies, it does its job with unbelievable accuracy . . . it remains in daily use to predict the orbits of moons and planets, comets and spacecraft. . . . Newton is a colossus without parallel in the history of science.”

Theology and Science

Newton’s historical learning, including a knowledge of Jewish customs, was extensive. He also mastered the writings of the church Fathers. (Newton’s interest in the doctrine of the Trinity led him to study the fourth-century conflict between Athanasius and Arius, who denied the status of Christ in the Godhead. Convinced that a massive fraud had perverted certain Scriptures, Newton adopted the Arian position.)

Despite his intense biblical study and belief in a creating God, Newton observed the distinction between religion and science made by Galileo: “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” During his presidency of the Royal Society, Newton banned any subject touching religion, even apologetics. He wrote, “We are not to introduce divine revelations into philosophy [science], nor philosophical [scientific] opinions into religion.”

Yet for Newton this distinction was not a divorce, much less a conflict. Although the books of God’s Word and his Works were not to provide the content of each other’s teachings, they were bound together. Newton did not consider one to be sacred and the other secular, nor did Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, or Pascal—all practicing Christians. Only later Enlightenment philosophy produced a model of “warfare” between science and theology.

Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing . . . all things according to his good will and pleasure.”

By Charles E. Hummel

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #30 in 1991]

Charles E. Hummel is author of The Galileo Connection and Genesis: God’s Creative Call (both InterVarsity).


His Opticks

The Opticks was written and originally published in English rather than Latin, and as a result it reached a wide range of readers in England. The reputation the Principia had prepared the way for the success of Newton's second published work. Also, its content and manner of presentation made the Opticks more approachable. It contained an account of experiments performed by Newton himself and his conclusions drawn from them, and it had greater appeal for the experimentally minded public of the time than the more mathematical Principia.

Of great interest for scientists were the questions with which Newton concluded the text of the Opticks 𠅏or example, ȭo not Bodies act upon Light at a distance, and by their action bend its rays?" These make up a unique expression of Newton's ideas posing them as negative (incorrect) questions made it possible for him to suggest ideas that he could not support by experimental evidence or mathematical proof, paving the way for further research by future scientists.


Newton helped develop spectral analysis

A drawing of Sir Isaac Newton dispersing light with a glass prism.

The next time you look up at a rainbow in the sky, you can thank Newton for helping us first understand and identify its seven colors. He began working on his studies of light and color even before creating the reflecting telescope, although he presented much of his evidence several years later, in his 1704 book, Opticks.

Before Newton, scientists primarily adhered to ancient theories on color, including those of Aristotle, who believed that all colors came from lightness (white) and darkness (black). Some even believed that the colors of the rainbow were formed by rainwater that colored the sky’s rays. Newton disagreed. He performed a seemingly endless series of experiments to prove his theories.

Working in his darkened room, he directed white light through a crystal prism on a wall, which separated into the seven colors we now know as the color spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). Scientists already knew many of these colors existed, but they believed that the prism itself transformed white light into these colors. But when Newton refracted these same colors back onto another prism, they formed into a white light, proving that white light (and sunlight) was actually a combination of all the colors of the rainbow.


Newton’s First Law: Inertia

An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.

Newton’s first law states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This tendency to resist changes in a state of motion is inertia. There is no net force acting on an object (if all the external forces cancel each other out). Then the object will maintain a constant velocity. If that velocity is zero, then the object remains at rest. If an external force acts on an object, the velocity will change because of the force.

Examples of inertia involving aerodynamics:

  • The motion of an airplane when a pilot changes the throttle setting of an engine.
  • The motion of a ball falling down through the atmosphere.
  • A model rocket being launched up into the atmosphere.
  • The motion of a kite when the wind changes.

Importance of Gravity

When most people think of Newton, they think of him sitting under an apple tree observing an apple fall to the ground. When he saw the apple fall, Newton began to think about a specific kind of motion called gravity. Newton understood that gravity was a force of attraction between two objects. He also understood that an object with more matter or mass exerted the greater force or pulled smaller objects toward it. That meant that the large mass of the Earth pulled objects toward it. That is why the apple fell down instead of up and why people don’t float in the air.

He also thought that maybe gravity was not just limited to the Earth and the objects on the earth. What if gravity extended to the Moon and beyond? Newton calculated the force needed to keep the Moon moving around the earth. Then he compared it with the force that made the apple fall downward. After allowing for the fact that the Moon is much farther from the Earth and has a much greater mass, he discovered that the forces were the same and that the Moon is also held in orbit around Earth by the pull of earth’s gravity.


The Spell of Biography: Isaac Newton and the History of Science

For a longtime, scholars claimed that one of the major differences between philosophy and science reflected their attitude towards biography. Philosophers were prepared to die for their ideas and had to to live according to their own preaching. By contrast, scientists produced ideas and theories which inhabited a different world than that of their own biography. They were concerned with the Truth. And the Truth spoke for itself. Gaston Bachelard once famously contrasted Galileo and Bruno in these terms. Bruno was defending a theory for which there was no proof (the infinity of the universe). A theory he was prepared to die for. By contrast, Galileo constructed a theory for which he had a number of proofs. There was no need to die for it. Isn’t it tempting to think that this is how science was born?

One has to admit that this is a nice story, even if it does not ring quite true. If in science ideas and theories are so much detached from their bearers, why are we so interested in scientific biographies?

Newton, the hero

For a longtime, there was a life scientists looked up to with the same reverence one can encounter in the case of philosophers’ attempts to know, model and emulate Socrates: The life of Isaac Newton. It provided a model and constituted a genre all by itself. At least until mid-nineteenth-century, Newton was regarded as a model for the scientific life: a moral standard for any kind of life in pursuit of truth (or maybe of “the Truth”). This was the inheritance of the eighteenth century eulogies, but also the image that Newton himself constructed with the help of his students and followers: that of a keen, humble, patient and assiduous investigator of nature, of “innate modesty and simplicity,” endowed with charity, generosity, temperance, piety, goodness & all other virtues, without a mixture of any vice whatsoever.”[1]

This was the public image of Newton that early modern science inherited but it did not last long. The fascination with Newton’s genius and the puzzling nature of his works were too strong for this carefully crafted but lifeless statue to endure. Rebekah Higgitt’s book tells us the story of how working scientists discovered Newton, engaged with his work, and felt the need to write his biography in order to both understand a much more complex personality and to vindicate a particular image of science. Her book surveys some of the most important early biographies of Newton written in the nineteenth century in France and England by mathematicians, physicists, astronomers and philosophers.

Recreating Newton tells us a fascinating story. It is not very often that a dense and intricate historical reconstruction keeps you glued to your chair, and to the text, as keen to find out what is next as when you read an engaging novel. Higgitt goes through a number of early biographies of Isaac Newton, from the first “scientific biography,” properly speaking – published in 1822 by Jean Baptiste Biot – to the second attempt of David Brewster to compose a scientific (and properly documented) biography of his idol, in 1855. The period between 1820s and 1860s is marked, in England, by a growing interest in Newton’s papers (mostly unpublished at that time), by various attempts to understand and integrate Newton’s various pursuits (in mechanics, optics, mathematics, theology and history, as well as in alchemy) and by a growing interest in science and its exploits. In fact, as Higgitt’s book convincingly shows, all these interests are going hand in hand and

It is interesting that discussions about Newton and his achievements were almost always, during those years, coached in the genre of biography. It was Newton’s life that mattered: and his achievements were often seen as a measure of his life.

These early biographies of Newton have something in common: they were written by practicing scientists who regarded Newton as their hero and – sometimes – as the founding father of their discipline. It was not always the same discipline. Jean Baptiste Biot, a disciple of Laplace, sees Newton as the founding father of mathematical physics (“mathematical philosophy”). Biot’s Newton is a contemplative genius and the two relevant moments of his biography are the falling of the apple (leading to the insight or flash of genius from which the celestial dynamics was born) and the nervous breakdown of 1692-1693 which Biot reads in terms of nineteenth century’s images of the “condition of genius” (which always contains a grain of madness).

By contrast, David Brewster, an experimental philosopher and expert in optics – but also one of the last representatives of a corpuscularian theory of light – makes Newton a much more complex personality. Brewster also has a different conception of scientific genius, in which morality and righteousness play a decisive part. Brewster’s Newton is an instrument of God through which Truth reveal itself a high-priest of science who had to be not only inspired but also blameless “modest, candid, affable and without any of the eccentricities of the genius.”[2]

As Higgitt shows quite convincingly, tension accumulates in these attempts to write a scientific biography between sources, documents, the “world of facts” and the philosophically charged levels of interpretation.

Brewster’s biography of Newton, in particular, is full of contradictions. Although Brewster is an experimental philosopher in his own right, and he does recognize Newton’s gifts as an experimenter, he is also keen in insisting that progress in science results from the efforts of peculiarly gifted individuals to accomplish high-level, abstract, theoretical work, and not from a bottom-up Baconian-kind of research. His conception of genius is that of a gifted individual, instrument of the Providence:

But perhaps the most striking set of contradictions in Brewster comes from his insistence that Newton’s discoveries were rather “the fruit of persevering and unbroken study” than of his “quickness of penetration” and “exuberance of invention which is more characteristic of poetical than of philosophical genius.” Brewster’s Newton had both genius and patience and determination but seems to own his achievements only to the latter set of qualities. Moreover, in order to protect Newton’s reputation, Brewster reinterprets the story of the nervous breakdown in terms of physical illness produced by exhaustion and overwork. To do so, he has to dismiss the current story which attributed Newton’s breakdown to the psychological effects resulting from the burning down of his laboratory and papers. Which leads Brewster to claim that Newton was not “very imaginative” – so that the burning of his own laboratory could have not affected him that much.

As Higgitt shows, there is a way one can make sense of Brewster’s contradictory claims. A thorough and honest historian, Brewster saw the contradictions between the public image of Newton and what one can find perusing his unpublished manuscripts. And the things just did not tie up. On the other hand, Brewster had his own agenda. Like Biot before him, Brewster was somewhat of an outsider to the mainstream scientific community he failed to get a position in the university and was supporting himself through private tutoring. He was a critic of the scientific establishment (especially of the Royal Society) and many of his writings are proposing alternative models of science and “men of science.” In his work as a historian he was writing biographies of the “martyrs of science”[3] discussing Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler as victims of neglect and persecution. Something of the same is projected upon Newton whom Brewster sees as someone who did not get all the credit and honor he deserved, especially posthumously. Last but not least, Brewster was set to vindicate Newton’s reputation: and to this he devoted a good part of his life.

Brewster is probably the only historian who wrote not one but two biographies of Isaac Newton. After the first biography, published in 1831, he set to work on something which will only appear in 1855, in two volumes, the Memoirs of life and works of Isaac Newton – a work that will remain the standard biography of Newton until the late twentieth century. Higgitt’s book explains the context and the driving force behind this enterprise.

The character of the genius

What happened in England between 1830s and the 1860s was a full-fledged debate surrounding “the character of Isaac Newton.” For a while, this was a debate over the character of a genius, much influenced by Romantic concepts of imagination, genius and madness. It was also a debate over the status of science and its long-lasting alliance (in England, again) with the Anglican Church. However, as biographers unearthed more documents and opened new archives, the focus of the debate changed. Biot did not have access to much unpublished material but Brewster managed to get access to the Porthsmouth Collection.[4] The archive of Newton’s family was not the only interesting repository of documents. Sometimes in the 1830s another practicing scientist uncovered extraordinarily interesting documents in another place: the Royal Observatory of Greenwich. Francis Baily was a former accountant who made some money to fulfill his life’s dream: he became astronomer. Or, as he clearly stated, he became engaged in doing “practical astronomy,” i.e., accurate observations, cataloguing and also – very important – keeping track of historical records in his field. Higgitt paints a nice and vivid portrait of this practicing astronomer who gradually came to believe that he should also take care of the history of astronomical observations, saving what can be saved from old records. These attempts led Baily to the discovery of John Flamsteed’s papers, of which many lied untouched for more than a century. Among them, ample correspondence regarding the “case” of Flamsteed versus Newton (and Halley).

Baily saw in Flamsteed a kindred spirit: a practical astronomer who valued stellar charts and tables over speculative theories someone obsessed with making precise observations to the point of delaying publication until he gets the data right. Also, someone who was deeply wronged by Halley and Newton, “theoreticians” who appropriated Flamsteed data, publishing them without permission.

Francis Baily’s Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed, (1835) created havoc amongst the Newtonians. Not only because Baily sets himself as Flamsteed’s champion, attempting to restore his reputation. But because the documents published together with Baily’s biased account were clearly damaging to the reputation of Newton. They demonstrate that Newton, the father and hero of modern science was someone who did not refrain from bullying his collaborators and appropriate work without permission. Moreover, in one of his letters, Newton shows himself not only impatient and angry with Flamsteed’s delays (thus contradicting openly the moral portrait of the stoic and patient sage of equal temper and generosity) but is also rude and dismissive, referring to the importance of his own work as the master of the Mint by contrast with the “trifling matter”[5] of the lunar theory.

How does all this square with the moral character of the genius? Newtonians adopted diverse strategies, but they were all up in arms to defend their hero. They accused Baily’s of partiality and objected to the publication of his book.[6] They accused Baily of not having fully understood the importance of Newton’s work. The “Newtonian confederacy”[7] claimed that Flamsteed’s observations were a “national property,” and it was in the interest of Science that Newton (and Halley) published them.

An interesting answer came from William Whewell who, both in his Newton and Flamsteed (1836) and in his larger project of building a philosophy of the inductive sciences turned this case into an exemplar of scientific research. Whewell distinguished between data gathering and the “history” assembled by mere practitioners and the work of theorists like Newton who, on the basis of data, construct theoretical superstructures. In fact, as shown by Richard Yeo, the emergence of Flamsteed papers and Baily’s reconstruction of the case proved a turning point in Whewell’s career and led to the further elaboration of his philosophy of inductive science.[8]

What is interesting is that in responding to Baily’s history, the “Newtonian confederacy” changed their way of talking about Newton’s character. Gradually, the discussion moved from the image of moral genius to that of the importance of Science and the duty of each scientist to serve Truth and the common cause of Science.

Impartial historians and objective scientists

The controversial work of Baily proved an incentive for more historical work, and more digging into archives. This, in turn, led to the discovery of other stories, even more damaging for Newton’s reputation: his hand in the final blow against Leibniz, the Comercium epistolicum. His endless pursuits of what seemed “mad” alchemical research. His tricky position in what looked like the illicit relationship of his niece, Catherine Barton with Lord Halifax (who left her a large fortune in his testament). Nineteenth century historical research assembled many of the puzzling pieces from which one has to make sense of Newton’s complex character. As Higgitt shows, history of science developed, in the nineteenth century, out of this clash: on the one hand, practicing scientists attempted to appropriate Newton for their own discipline. On the other, as impartial historians, they felt compelled to give not only detailed accounts but also to publish (and translate) documents from Newton’s archive, bringing to the surface the evidence on which much of the subsequent history of science was constructed. They did that guided by ideals of impartiality and objectivity characteristic for their own time. Impartiality did not mean not having a standpoint in the matter it meant having the “best standpoint” (126) to exercise one’s “judicial objectivity.” But “the moral position of the author was subsumed into the chosen historical format” (127) and that was that of scientific biography. What happens with Newton’s biographies is that they became more and more filled with f contradictions as time went by. Biographers made their case but quite often were forced to recognize their defeat. And sometimes, their own limits. As in the famous Brewster’s saying

A new image of Newton was slowly emerging at the end of these intense efforts to combine an empiricist historiography centered upon documents with sophisticated interpretations still tributary to apologetics. That was the Newton of the twentieth century: the Newton of the split personality, difficult – if not impossible – to understand impossible – or at least extremely difficult – to follow as a model. Together with this change of image, a parallel change took place in history (and philosophy) of science. Because, as Higgitt claims:

Recreating Newton convincingly shows that the writing of Newton’s scientific biographies was motivated by working scientists’ attempts to define their own enterprises, as well as Science in general. Biot, Baily, Brewster, Whewell and the other characters of Higgitt’s book had not only an individual agenda and individual biases, but large visions of Science they wanted to impose on others, and on the society at large. Some failed to do so some, perhaps, succeeded, at least for a while.

Some concluding questions

At the end of this, the reader is left with a number of questions. One is precisely that which constituted my point of departure in this review. Is science so much different from philosophy? Can we say, at the end of centuries of writing about Newton, that we are left with a more objective and impartial image of the scientific enterprise? Can we say, for example, that the handful of questions posed by Newton’s seemingly incomprehensible character, conflicting decisions, and manifestly disjoint interests are of no consequence for our current vision of science, that there are merely “trifles” and curiosities of historical research? Or are we – as in the case of dealing with our heroes, the philosophers – still under the spell of biography? Is it not this spell of biography that compels us to ask questions about the unity of Newton’t thought? What eventually sends us back to the library to do more historical research, in the attempt to understand and “unify” Newton’s enterprise, to get deeper insights into his mysterious interests and problematic decisions?

If all this is true, maybe philosophy and science are not, after all, so very different. The spell of biography acts in the same manner in both.

[1] John Conduit’s “Memoir” of the life of Newton, transcribed in Robert Iliffe, Early Biographies of Isaac Newton, vol. I, p. 101.

[2] David Brewster, 1831, p. 337, cited by Higgitt, p. 48.

[3] He published a book with this title in 1841.

[4] Most of Newton’s manuscripts remained in the possession of the family (the earls of Porthsmouth) until early in the twentieth century when some parts of the collection were acquired by the University of Cambridge and the rest was scattered through a famous public auction which took place in 1936.

[5] “I do not love to be…. Thought by our own people to be trifling away my time about them, when I should be about King’s business”

[6] The book was published by the Admiralty in a limited number of copies which were distributed to various astronomical observatories in England and abroad. Copies could not be bought at the same time, this private distribution was seen by some as even more detrimental because done under the high patronage of the State.

[8] Richard Yeo, Defining science: William Whewell, natural knowledge and public debate in early Victorian Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2003.


2. Newton's Work and Influence

Three factors stand in the way of giving an account of Newton's work and influence. First is the contrast between the public Newton, consisting of publications in his lifetime and in the decade or two following his death, and the private Newton, consisting of his unpublished work in math and physics, his efforts in chymistry &mdash that is, the 17th century blend of alchemy and chemistry &mdash and his writings in radical theology &mdash material that has become public mostly since World War II. Only the public Newton influenced the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, yet any account of Newton himself confined to this material can at best be only fragmentary. Second is the contrast, often shocking, between the actual content of Newton's public writings and the positions attributed to him by others, including most importantly his popularizers. The term &ldquoNewtonian&rdquo refers to several different intellectual strands unfolding in the eighteenth century, some of them tied more closely to Voltaire, Pemberton, and Maclaurin &mdash or for that matter to those who saw themselves as extending his work, such as Clairaut, Euler, d'Alembert, Lagrange, and Laplace &mdash than to Newton himself. Third is the contrast between the enormous range of subjects to which Newton devoted his full concentration at one time or another during the 60 years of his intellectual career &mdash mathematics, optics, mechanics, astronomy, experimental chemistry, alchemy, and theology &mdash and the remarkably little information we have about what drove him or his sense of himself. Biographers and analysts who try to piece together a unified picture of Newton and his intellectual endeavors often end up telling us almost as much about themselves as about Newton.

Compounding the diversity of the subjects to which Newton devoted time are sharp contrasts in his work within each subject. Optics and orbital mechanics both fall under what we now call physics, and even then they were seen as tied to one another, as indicated by Descartes' first work on the subject, Le Monde, ou Traité de la lumierè. Nevertheless, two very different &ldquoNewtonian&rdquo traditions in physics arose from Newton's Opticks and Principia: from his Opticks a tradition centered on meticulous experimentation and from his Principia a tradition centered on mathematical theory. The most important element common to these two was Newton's deep commitment to having the empirical world serve not only as the ultimate arbiter, but also as the sole basis for adopting provisional theory. Throughout all of this work he displayed distrust of what was then known as the method of hypotheses &ndash putting forward hypotheses that reach beyond all known phenomena and then testing them by deducing observable conclusions from them. Newton insisted instead on having specific phenomena decide each element of theory, with the goal of limiting the provisional aspect of theory as much as possible to the step of inductively generalizing from the specific phenomena. This stance is perhaps best summarized in his fourth Rule of Reasoning, added in the third edition of the Principia, but adopted as early as his Optical Lectures of the 1670s:

In experimental philosophy, propositions gathered from phenomena by induction should be taken to be either exactly or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses, until yet other phenomena make such propositions either more exact or liable to exceptions.

This rule should be followed so that arguments based on induction may not be nullified by hypotheses.

Such a commitment to empirically driven science was a hallmark of the Royal Society from its very beginnings, and one can find it in the research of Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and in the experimental efforts of the Royal Academy of Paris. Newton, however, carried this commitment further first by eschewing the method of hypotheses and second by displaying in his Principia and Opticks how rich a set of theoretical results can be secured through well-designed experiments and mathematical theory designed to allow inferences from phenomena. The success of those after him in building on these theoretical results completed the process of transforming natural philosophy into modern empirical science.

Newton's commitment to having phenomena decide the elements of theory required questions to be left open when no available phenomena could decide them. Newton contrasted himself most strongly with Leibniz in this regard at the end of his anonymous review of the Royal Society's report on the priority dispute over the calculus:

Newton could have said much the same about the question of what light consists of, waves or particles, for while he felt that the latter was far more probable, he saw it still not decided by any experiment or phenomenon in his lifetime. Leaving questions about the ultimate cause of gravity and the constitution of light open was the other factor in his work driving a wedge between natural philosophy and empirical science.

The many other areas of Newton's intellectual endeavors made less of a difference to eighteenth century philosophy and science. In mathematics, Newton was the first to develop a full range of algorithms for symbolically determining what we now call integrals and derivatives, but he subsequently became fundamentally opposed to the idea, championed by Leibniz, of transforming mathematics into a discipline grounded in symbol manipulation. Newton thought the only way of rendering limits rigorous lay in extending geometry to incorporate them, a view that went entirely against the tide in the development of mathematics in the eighteenth and nineteenth ceturies. In chemistry Newton conducted a vast array of experiments, but the experimental tradition coming out of his Opticks, and not his experiments in chemistry, lay behind Lavoisier calling himself a Newtonian indeed, one must wonder whether Lavoisier would even have associated his new form of chemistry with Newton had he been aware of Newton's fascination with writings in the alchemical tradition. And even in theology, there is Newton the anti-Trinitarian mild heretic who was not that much more radical in his departures from Roman and Anglican Christianity than many others at the time, and Newton, the wild religious zealot predicting the end of the Earth, who did not emerge to public view until quite recently.

There is surprisingly little cross-referencing of themes from one area of Newton's endeavors to another. The common element across almost all of them is that of a problem-solver extraordinaire, taking on one problem at a time and staying with it until he had found, usually rather promptly, a solution. All of his technical writings display this, but so too does his unpublished manuscript reconstructing Solomon's Temple from the biblical account of it and his posthumously published Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms in which he attempted to infer from astronomical phenomena the dating of major events in the Old Testament. The Newton one encounters in his writings seems to compartmentalize his interests at any given moment. Whether he had a unified conception of what he was up to in all his intellectual efforts, and if so what this conception might be, has been a continuing source of controversy among Newton scholars.

Of course, were it not for the Principia, there would be no entry at all for Newton in an Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In science, he would have been known only for the contributions he made to optics, which, while notable, were no more so than those made by Huygens and Grimaldi, neither of whom had much impact on philosophy and in mathematics, his failure to publish would have relegated his work to not much more than a footnote to the achievements of Leibniz and his school. Regardless of which aspect of Newton's endeavors &ldquoNewtonian&rdquo might be applied to, the word gained its aura from the Principia. But this adds still a further complication, for the Principia itself was substantially different things to different people. The press-run of the first edition (estimated to be around 300) was too small for it to have been read by all that many individuals. The second edition also appeared in two pirated Amsterdam editions, and hence was much more widely available, as was the third edition and its English (and later French) translation. The Principia, however, is not an easy book to read, so one must still ask, even of those who had access to it, whether they read all or only portions of the book and to what extent they grasped the full complexity of what they read. The detailed commentary provided in the three volume Jesuit edition (1739&ndash42) made the work less daunting. But even then the vast majority of those invoking the word &ldquoNewtonian&rdquo were unlikely to have been much more conversant with the Principia itself than those in the first half of the 20th century who invoked &lsquorelativity&rsquo were likely to have read Einstein's two special relativity papers of 1905 or his general relativity paper of 1916. An important question to ask of any philosophers commenting on Newton is, what primary sources had they read?

The 1740s witnessed a major transformation in the standing of the science in the Principia. The Principia itself had left a number of loose-ends, most of them detectable by only highly discerning readers. By 1730, however, some of these loose-ends had been cited in Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's elogium for Newton [4] and in John Machin's appendix to the 1729 English translation of the Principia, raising questions about just how secure Newton's theory of gravity was, empirically. The shift on the continent began in the 1730s when Maupertuis convinced the Royal Academy to conduct expeditions to Lapland and Peru to determine whether Newton's claims about the non-spherical shape of the Earth and the variation of surface gravity with latitude are correct. Several of the loose-ends were successfully resolved during the 1740's through such notable advances beyond the Principia as Clairaut's Théorie de la Figure de la Terre the return of the expedition from Peru d'Alembert's 1749 rigid-body solution for the wobble of the Earth that produces the precession of the equinoxes Clairaut's 1749 resolution of the factor of 2 discrepancy between theory and observation in the mean motion of the lunar apogee, glossed over by Newton but emphasized by Machin and the prize-winning first ever successful description of the motion of the Moon by Tobias Mayer in 1753, based on a theory of this motion derived from gravity by Euler in the early 1750s taking advantage of Clairaut's solution for the mean motion of the apogee.

Euler was the central figure in turning the three laws of motion put forward by Newton in the Principia into Newtonian mechanics. These three laws, as Newton formulated them, apply to &ldquopoint-masses,&rdquo a term Euler had put forward in his Mechanica of 1736. Most of the effort of eighteenth century mechanics was devoted to solving problems of the motion of rigid bodies, elastic strings and bodies, and fluids, all of which require principles beyond Newton's three laws. From the 1740s on this led to alternative approaches to formulating a general mechanics, employing such different principles as the conservation of vis viva, the principle of least action, and d'Alembert's principle. The &ldquoNewtonian&rdquo formulation of a general mechanics sprang from Euler's proposal in 1750 that Newton's second law, in an F=ma formulation that appears nowhere in the Principia, could be applied locally within bodies and fluids to yield differential equations for the motions of bodies, elastic and rigid, and fluids. During the 1750s Euler developed his equations for the motion of fluids, and in the 1760s, his equations of rigid-body motion. What we call Newtonian mechanics was accordingly something for which Euler was more responsible than Newton.

Although some loose-ends continued to defy resolution until much later in the eighteenth century, by the early 1750s Newton's theory of gravity had become the accepted basis for ongoing research among almost everyone working in orbital astronomy. Clairaut's successful prediction of the month of return of Halley's comet at the end of this decade made a larger segment of the educated public aware of the extent to which empirical grounds for doubting Newton's theory of gravity had largely disappeared. Even so, one must still ask of anyone outside active research in gravitational astronomy just how aware they were of the developments from ongoing efforts when they made their various pronouncements about the standing of the science of the Principia among the community of researchers. The naivety of these pronouncements cuts both ways: on the one hand, they often reflected a bloated view of how secure Newton's theory was at the time, and, on the other, they often underestimated how strong the evidence favoring it had become. The upshot is a need to be attentive to the question of what anyone, even including Newton himself, had in mind when they spoke of the science of the Principia.

To view the seventy years of research after Newton died as merely tying up the loose-ends of the Principia or as simply compiling more evidence for his theory of gravity is to miss the whole point. Research predicated on Newton's theory had answered a huge number of questions about the world dating from long before it. The motion of the Moon and the trajectories of comets were two early examples, both of which answered such questions as how one comet differs from another and what details make the Moon's motion so much more complicated than that of the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. In the 1770s Laplace had developed a proper theory of the tides, reaching far beyond the suggestions Newton had made in the Principia by including the effects of the Earth's rotation and the non-radial components of the gravitational forces of the Sun and Moon, components that dominate the radial component that Newton had singled out. In 1786 Laplace identified a large 900 year fluctuation in the motions of Jupiter and Saturn arising from quite subtle features of their respective orbits. With this discovery, calculation of the motion of the planets from the theory of gravity became the basis for predicting planet positions, with observation serving primarily to identify further forces not yet taken into consideration in the calculation. These advances in our understanding of planetary motion led Laplace to produce the four principal volumes of his Traité de mécanique céleste from 1799 to 1805, a work collecting in one place all the theoretical and empirical results of the research predicated on Newton's Principia. From that time forward, Newtonian science sprang from Laplace's work, not Newton's.

The success of the research in celestial mechanics predicated on the Principia was unprecedented. Nothing of comparable scope and accuracy had ever occurred before in empirical research of any kind. That led to a new philosophical question: what was it about the science of the Principia that enabled it to achieve what it did? Philosophers like Locke and Berkeley began asking this question while Newton was still alive, but it gained increasing force as successes piled on one another over the decades after he died. This question had a practical side, as those working in other fields like chemistry pursued comparable success, and others like Hume and Adam Smith aimed for a science of human affairs. It had, of course, a philosophical side, giving rise to the subdiscipline of philosophy of science, starting with Kant and continuing throughout the nineteenth century as other areas of physical science began showing similar signs of success. The Einsteinian revolution in the beginning of the twentieth century, in which Newtonian theory was shown to hold only as a limiting case of the special and general theories of relativity, added a further twist to the question, for now all the successes of Newtonian science, which still remain in place, have to be seen as predicated on a theory that holds only to high approximation in parochial circumstances.

The extraordinary character of the Principia gave rise to a still continuing tendency to place great weight on everything Newton said. This, however, was, and still is, easy to carry to excess. One need look no further than Book 2 of the Principia to see that Newton had no more claim to being somehow in tune with nature and the truth than any number of his contemporaries. Newton's manuscripts do reveal an exceptional level of attention to detail of phrasing, from which we can rightly conclude that his pronouncements, especially in print, were generally backed by careful, self-critical reflection. But this conclusion does not automatically extend to every statement he ever made. We must constantly be mindful of the possibility of too much weight being placed, then or now, on any pronouncement that stands in relative isolation over his 60 year career and, to counter the tendency to excess, we should be even more vigilant than usual in not losing sight of the context, circumstantial as well as historical and textual, of both Newton's statements and the eighteenth century reaction to them.


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