For an American to comment on Isaac Newton in a UK publication is really ‘carrying the coal to Newcastle’. But I have just read a new biography of Isaac Newton by James Gleick (Pantheon Books, 2003), which is so interesting that I would like to comment on it here.

A poll conducted by Newsweek identified Newton as the world’s second ‘most significant’ person of the last millennium, following only Gutenberg. Newton was born in 1642 (by the English calendar of the day) into a poor, illiterate family. Newton’s father, who had farmed the land in Woolsthorpe, north of Cambridge, died before he was born. As a youth, Newton, who was unhappy with his stepfather and mother, was sent to a one-room boarding school where he learned Latin, theology, Greek, Hebrew, and some practical arithmetic. The young student was especially interested in geometric shapes, the behavior of heavenly bodies, lengths, distances, and time. Newton was lonely, anxious, and competitive. In those days, books and paper were hardly available to someone in his situation. Religion dominated the philosophy of the day and his education.

At the age of 19, Newton was admitted, with little financial support, as a student of the lowest social level to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. His most prized possessions were a notebook of 140 blank pages, pen, ink, and candles for study at night. At that time, the stagnant Cambridge curriculum emphasized the study of classical texts from disintegrated Mediterranean cultures, e.g. irrational Aristotle concepts of form, motion, change, and time. The simple words needed for the formulation of Newton’s Laws of Motion (mass, force, velocity, acceleration, momentum, etc.) were not even defined and an accepted system of units was not available. Religious beliefs were inherent to any interpretation of natural phenomena. But Newton became familiar with Descartes’ new philosophical ideas, Galilei’s concepts of geometry and motion, and Boyle’s pressure, and decided to neglect the classical teachings and start over (on his own) to understand the workings of the earth and the heavens. His basic assumptions were that matter is comprised of atoms, light of particles, and that experimentation would lead to understanding. Newton set out to understand light and colors, gravity, fluidity, sound, heat, tides, magnetism, and the motion of heavenly bodies.

In 1664, Newton became a student of Isaac Barrow, Cambridge’s first professor of mathematics, and acquired the several books on mathematics that were available on the European continent. That year, Newton carefully traced the motion of a mysterious tail blazing comet against the background of the fixed stars, a phenomenon that he would explain in detail later. But the plague broke out in London early the next year, and the Cambridge colleges began shutting down. Newton returned home and, working as a recluse in virtual isolation, transformed himself into the world’s leading mathematician and perhaps its first physicist. For me, his achievements in solitude at the age of 23 represent the most amazing aspect of his life, for he lacked all the modern incentives: need, reward, recognition, etc. Apparently, Newton was seeking only to understand for himself how God’s creation functioned, and to describe it mathematically. He wondered whether he was rediscovering mathematics known to the Greeks but forgotten for lack of printed books. With the printing press, knowledge was becoming cumulative rather than rediscovery.

Upon his return to Cambridge, his developments in higher math (calculus, infinite series, analytic geometry, etc.) and physics (nature of light and color, the inverse square law of gravity, trajectories for heavenly bodies, etc.) became recognized. Newton had also invented and built a reflecting telescope, which is the prototype for today’s large telescopes. Based on these achievements, he was made a Fellow of Trinity College. Accordingly he swore: “I will either set Theology as the object of my studies and will take holy orders…, or I will resign from the college.” (An exemption was later granted.)

Newton had little interest in printing or presenting his work, probably because of his suspicion that rivals wanted to steal his ideas and a dread of antagonistic criticism. When he did finally publish, in 1686, the first of three books (in Latin) — Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica — the world’s limited number of ‘scientists’ were led to replace the Cartesian system with Newtonianism.

Bob Rapp,

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)01211-2