I saac Newton, the genius who discovered the laws of gravity and motion and invented calculus, changed the way we understand the Universe. He prepared the foundations for modern science with his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in 1687. But at the same time, he had an enormous, vengeful ego, with a terrible, vindictive temper, and engaged in bitter rivalries with enemies even beyond the grave.
Expected to Die
Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, on December 25, 1642. Three months premature, he was not expected to live. His father had already died. His mother re-married, leaving him with his grandmother. Insecure and bitter, he threatened to burn down his stepfather’s house. Already prodigiously inventive, he built tiny windmills, powered by mice running in wheels.
Plague of 1665
Entering Cambridge University in 1661 to read law, he quickly turned to the study of mathematics. The terrible plague of 1665, however, obliged the university to close. These years at home were the most productive of Newton’s life. He was preparing, in secret, his theories of calculus and the laws of motion. He believed in observations and experiments. An apple falling from a tree in his garden made him start to think about what would eventually be called ‘gravity’. Fascinated by optics, he stuck a needle in his eye to discover its effect!
His work on the subject of light, his discovery that white light is a mixture of immutable spectral colours, would become the foundation of physical optics. His ideas led to his design of a revolutionary new reflecting telescope, using mirrors instead of lenses. Extremely powerful, it produced much clearer images, and was ten times smaller than traditional telescopes.
The year 1684 saw the birth of one of science’s most infamous rivalries. German scientist Gottfried Leibniz published a paper claiming to have invented calculus. In fact, both Leibniz and Newton had thought of calculus independently, but Newton had kept his work secret. The British scientist’s fury lasted until his death.
In 1687, Newton published his groundbreaking work, The Principia, the culmination of twenty years’ labour. The book was a radical, revolutionary, mathematical description of the Universe, in which Newton explained his theory of calculus, his three laws of motion, and his theory of universal gravitation. He became instantly famous. In 1703, he was elected president of the Royal Society, the country’s most prestigious scientific body. He used his position to make and break the reputations of colleagues and rivals.
A National Hero
Isaac Newton died on March 20, 1727. A national hero, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. Reflecting on his life, he had said: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Einstein kept a picture of Newton on his study wall.