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Isaac Newton (1642--1727) --- Historical Sketch

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants. -- Sir Isaac Newton

It is not known exactly who this quotation's referent giants were in the mind of its author, but it is easy to guess that it included such greats as Euclid (ca. 300 BC) and Archimedes (287--212 BC) among the ancients, along with Galileo Galilei (1564--1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), René Descartes (1596--1650), Francesco Bonaventura Cavalieri (1598--1647), Pierre de Fermat (1601--1665), Christiaan Huygens (1629--1695), and a great many others.

Isaac Newton led such a full, diverse, and long life that it is impossible in a short space to recount adequately his numerous interests and his very diverse contributions to both mathematics and science---to say nothing of his government service late in his life---and even omitting many aspects of his life, it's hard to know where to begin. Maybe his childhood is as good a starting point as any, especially since his childhood was such a very unusual one.

Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, in northeastern England, on Christmas Day of the year that Galileo died, 1642 (Julian calendar), his father passing away before he was born. His mother remarried some three years later, and to pacify her new husband, she consigned young Isaac to the care of her mother and her brother. His early schooling had been in nearby towns, then later in Grantham, where he lived in the home of a pharmacist, an atmosphere in which his lifelong interest in chemistry may have been established. He languished for a time in his schoolwork, but his native brilliance eventually became evident as he developed into the best student in the school.

At age 14, however, his stepfather died, whereupon his mother removed him from school in an attempt to turn his attention to farming, but to no avail. Happily for young Isaac, a Grantham teacher and Isaac's uncle persuaded his mother to let him apply to Cambridge University, where he was admitted in 1661 to Trinity College under a requirement to work part time at the University. His favorite subject was of course chemistry, but he was also attracted to mathematics. A dutiful mathematics professor at Trinity, Isaac Barrow, took note of Isaac's brilliance and provided much encouragement. Newton earned his baccalaureate degree in 1665, just as the bubonic plague broke out, temporarily closing the University. Newton returned to his home.

While at home for two years, he reportedly set forth the foundations for differential and integral calculus. (This, being a few years prior to Leibniz doing essentially the same thing, is for many people the basis for claiming Newtonian priority for calculus. See the Historical Sketch for Leibniz.) Newton's essential insight was in seeing that differentiation and integration are inverse operations.

When Cambridge University reopened in 1667, Newton took but a year to obtain his Master's degree and be elected to a fellowship. His mentor Isaac Barrow then resigned his Lucasian Chair of Mathematics in favor of Newton being appointed to fill that prestigious position. His first work in that chair was in optics, when he showed that when white light is passed through a prism, its component colors (labeled by Newton as red, yellow, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet) appeared. But his corpuscular theory of light was supplanted by the wave theory in the nineteenth century.

In 1672, Newton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and his first scientific paper---on light and color---was published in the Society's Philosophical Transactions. But the greatest accomplishment was his formulation of the laws of mechanics and of universal gravitation.

In 1689, Newton was elected to the British Parliament, representing Cambridge. Then in 1692, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Despite that, he accepted a 1696 appointment as Warden of the Mint and a 1699 appointment as Master of the Mint. In 1703, he became President of the Royal Society, a position he held for the rest of his life. In 1705, he was knighted by Queen Anne.

Newton died at age 85 and was buried in Westminster Abbey with great pomp and ceremony.

Here is a widely-known quote of Isaac Newton: "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 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." What is your feeling about this quote. What do you think Newton was trying to tell us, if anything, about his approach to science and in particular to mathematics?


Historical sketches

Copyright © 2006 Darel Hardy, Fred Richman, Carol Walker, Robert Wisner. All rights reserved. Except upon the express prior permission in writing, from the authors, no part of this work may be reproduced, transcribed, stored electronically, or transmitted in any form by any method.

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