A Blupete Biography Page

Newton's Life, Part 1 to the Life & Works of
Isaac Newton

South east of an area that was to become the English industrial heartland, in a little village called Woolsthorpe, Issaac Newton made his entry into the world. He was prematurely born, and, was so small at his birth, his mother used to say that "he might then have been put into a quart mug."1 His widowed mother - Newton's father had died several months before his birth - was to re-marry; and - there apparently being no room for a two year old in the new Newton household - this small misplaced child passed into the care of his grandmother.

Newton had a bad start with his schooling; he has been described as having been one of the poorest performing students in the grammar school in which his grandmother had placed him.2 The story is that the boy suffered from a blow delivered by a schoolyard bully; or was it that he was struck on the head by an apple: whatever it was, an event occurred whereby "the hard shell which imprisoned his genius was cracked wide open." The boy was to make a dramatic turn around, early in his scholastic career. He was to ask questions which many of us sooner or later have come to ask. What is light and how is it transmitted? What keeps the moon in the orbit of the earth, and the planets in the orbit of the sun? Why does the apple fall to the ground? Newton came, in time, to answer these questions and was to give positive proof of these answers, proofs and answers which serve us yet today.3

Somehow, interested people managed in 1661 to see that Newton entered Trinity College, Cambridge. By 1665 he was writing of "fluxions" and the law of gravitation. By 1667, Newton was made a fellow at Trinity, and soon thereafter, a professor of mathematics, a post which he held to at least 1696.

Newton, the scientist from Cambridge, was in direct competition with Hooke, the scientist from Oxford. It was likely this competition which drove Newton to write his Principia, it is said, within a period of eighteen months; a task which physically and mentally drained its author. It was to be Newton's great gift to mankind.

"Mathematically it [Principia] can only be compared to Euclid's Elements; in its physical insight and its effect on ideas only to Darwin's Origin of Species. It immediately became the bible of the new science ..."4
It is said that Edmund Halley (yes, the man who had a comet named after him) came from Oxford in 1684 (the other camp) with the view of consulting with Newton on a rather esoteric question concerning the centripetal forces of the universe. Newton had already solved the problem a couple of years back, -- and Halley, was much impressed. One might speculate that Halley put a bee in Newton's ear that his rival was hot on the trail and, of course, the first to publish is the winner. It was thought that the Royal Society would pay the printing and distribution costs of Newton's work, but at the last minute it reneged. (Hooke had taken over the secretary's position in 1677.) Halley, apparently a man of greater financial resources, came to Newton's aid; he supervised the printing of the work and paid the bills.

Newton's work had the effect of putting Cartesian philosophy on its ear. Those who subscribe to this philosophy accept certain truths, a priori (truths not derived from experience). I do not want to get into a philosophical discussion, at this place, about deductive reasoning, sufficient to say that accepting notions which have no basis in reality and then to proceed to build on those is not the approach used by those who hit upon the great scientific discoveries of the 17th century, or any scientific discovery, ever.

Newton specifically stated in his work that he was advancing beyond the philosophical to the mathematical. His statements were not based on assumptions or suppositions, but rather on mathematical proof set out in detail. Descartes had thought that all matter in space is contained within a thin fluid, which gave rise to vortexes, which in turn held all the celestial bodies in place. The theories advanced by Descartes are every bit as interesting as that advanced by Newton: the problem is that Descartes had absolutely no proof to back up his theories - Newton did.

Rene Descartes was a dualist: and the principal point I wish to make, is: Newton was not. It is important, even to the most rudimentary understanding of Newtonian theory, to understand that any law of nature is universal in its application. Newton had made a rather fundamental break with the past in stating that there is no difference between earthly and celestial phenomena. "Like effects in nature are produced by like causes." The ancient belief, the dualist belief, is that there are worlds apart from the earth and these be perfect worlds, whereas the earth is not.

In person, Newton was medium in height and in his later years was inclined to stoutness. He was extremely absent-minded particularly when in the midst of trying to fathom a theoretical problem; it is said that he would sometimes sit on the side of his bed half-dressed for hours at a time. He frequently would not know whether he had dined, or no. "He was a lifelong bachelor, he never wore glasses, and his teeth were sound and serviceable to the day of his death."5

As for his temper: He was "invidious, ambitious, exceedingly avid of praise, and very irritable when contradicted." It is further written of Newton that he had a suspicious and quarrelsome temper.6 An example of Newton's quarrelsome temper can be exemplified by the running argument he had with the supporters of his German counterpart, Leibniz.

Newton lived in London in a comfortable setting and had "a beautiful niece to keep house for him."7 He pursued his studies without any subsidies; and he bought all of his own equipment.8

Newton died on March 20th, 1727. He was buried in Westminster Abbey where most all of England's great are buried.9



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Peter Landry

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