And God Said: “Let There Be Newton”

The same year that Galileo died in Florence, a premature baby was born to the Newton family in Lincolnshire.  Isaac, as he was named, was a sickly child and picked on in school.  The school bully, who also happened to be the smartest boy in school, once kicked Newton in the stomach.  Newton fought back and beat the bully.  He then proceeded to complete his victory by beating the boy in school.  At age 18 he entered Trinity College and earned a B.A. degree in mathematics without much distinction.

During Newton’s studies in college, the Black Plague ravaged England and all students were sent home.  Newton returned to Lincolnshire where the family lived in seclusion for about 18 months.  During that time Newton conceived almost all of the ideas for which he is famous.  These include the binomial theorem that is taught in high school algebra, the fundamentals of differential and integral calculus, which he called fluxions and inverse fluxions, a theory on color, that is, the spectrum that creates rainbows and an extension of his theory of gravity as being the force that keeps the moon in orbit around the earth.

Over the next twenty years Newton worked on his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, natural philosophy being the term then given to the laws of nature.  Newton developed a mechanistic interpretation of all physical phenomena, a point of view that dominated physics until the early years of the Twentieth Century when the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics were developed.  However, Newton’s laws and theories, which have come to be called Newtonian or Classical Physics, still govern the ordinary world around us.  They explain why cars stay on the roads, why roller coasters can go upside down, and why there are rainbows after a rain storm.  The development of his theory of gravity led to a new field of study, celestial mechanics, which in turn advanced astronomy and the study of the cosmos.

It was Newton who first conceived of a satellite orbiting the earth.  He did this by observing that a stone thrown from a high point makes an arc as it drops back to earth.  He then imagined throwing the stone harder and harder, so that the arc was longer and longer until eventually the stone passed the curvature of the earth before it struck ground, thereby entering into orbit around the earth.

As a person, Newton wasn’t particularly pleasant and was often involved in controversy with his colleagues.  He was the arch-type of the absent-minded professor, often forgetting to eat, comb his hair or even complete getting dressed in the morning.  He had a cat, for whom he cut an opening in his door so the cat could come and go at her leisure.  When the cat had kittens, Newton cut holes for each kitten.  He was, however, aware of the achievements of those who came before him.  He famously remarked “If I have seen further than others it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Newton is arguably one of the best-known scientists of all time.  The names Newton and Einstein are linked in physics and just as almost everyone knows E=mc2 as the formula that converts mass to energy and vice versa, almost everyone is familiar with Newton’s laws of motion, particularly the Third Law, to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It is safe to say that Newton is the giant on whose shoulders all physicists who followed stood.

 

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2 thoughts on “And God Said: “Let There Be Newton”

  1. Newton’s satellite theory is a great example of how one’s own ideas can build on themselves, given freedom of thought, creativity and perseverance. I wonder if our propensity to fill free time with electronics will stifle this type of ideation or if it will expose us to more opportunities for thought. The quick answer would be that it’s up to the individual. If Newton had Facebook, would he had achieved so much?

    1. I believe our desire to get things in sound bites or tweets or 400-word blog posts stifles creativity. People like Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others were incredibly well-read and learned. I don’t believe in general people spend enough time just thinking, meditating, pondering and mulling things over in their minds.

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