Sir Isaac Newton has long been
regarded as one of the most brilliant scientist who ever lived, as
well as one of greatest mathematicians in England's history.
However, Newton's character and life was one made of long flashes
of brilliance and followed by unexplainable eccentric behavior.
Isaac was born on Christmas day in a
village in Lincolnshire, England. His mother described Isaac as
being so tiny he could fit into a quart jar, while his father
hoped
that his new son would grow to manage the farm someday.
Growing up Isaac barely maintained average grades and often lacked
attention in school. Villagers looked upon his daydreaming, habits
of reading for hours at a time, and keeping records of his
interests as mere eccentricity. However, the first hints of
Newton's brilliance could be found in his boyhood inventions. He
was responsible for creating sundials, an accurate wooden clock,
water wheels, and even a kite with an enclosed lantern, which
fooled the locals into seeing ghosts! One of his most practical
adolescent inventions was a mill, which mechanically ground wheat
into flour via mouse power.
Newton's father died when he turned
fifteen. Luckily, Newton's uncle saw the potential of his nephew's
scientific talents, and enrolled him in Cambridge University. It
was here that Newton was first exposed to the world of
mathematics. Having come across Euclid's Elements in a bookstore,
Newton was able to quickly follow the work, although he had little
mathematical background to begin with.
Having found the work easy reading,
Newton became fascinated by mathematics and he quickly mastered
Descartes' difficult work, Geometry. From this point on, having
been exposed to just the surface of the worlds of science and
math, Newton's appetite for both exploded exponentially. Newton
quickly earned the respect of his peers and professors at
Cambridge. For instance, at the end of his second year, Newton had
taken the place of his professor, Dr. Isaac Barrow, who resigned
in recognition of Newton's superior mathematical skills.
In 1664, the Great Plague struck
England and the university closed for a period to allow students
and professors return home to prevent an outbreak at school. From
1664 to 1666, Isaac made his greatest contributions to
mathematics. Relying on the works of Galileo, Kepler, and
Descartes, Newton invented calculus, discovered the law of
universal gravitation, and he did extensive work on spectrums. The
creation and development of his calculus was said to be the first
achievement of mathematics, however, Newton would not publish his
calculus until much later in his life. This was a mistake which
would repeat itself continuously throughout Newton's works and
writings.
For the next twenty years he
continued to lecture on mathematics. So advanced was his
mathematics that other mathematicians spent nearly fifty years
trying to understand it all. Finally, in 1684, Newton began
writing Principia or Mathematical Principles of Natural
Philosophy, to help summarize his discoveries about the physical
world. In this work, Newton placed an emphasis on motion. In it,
he formulated the three laws of motion, the third of which is
essential to the understanding of modern rocket power and jet
propulsion. Furthermore, he discussed the motion of bodies in free
space, the motion of bodies in a resisting medium, and the solar
system and celestial movements. This work consumed Newton until
its completion. He wrote often for 18 to 19 hours daily, while
ignoring meals and having little sleep.
In addition to Principia, Newton
wrote The Universal Arithmetic, which help to substantiate and
advance his theory of equations. He also wrote papers concerning
calculus, curves, optics, and analytical geometry. Again many of
these works went unpublished until long after they were written.
Newton, who was often reluctant to publish his writing, was
finally coaxed into printing up his work with the urging of his
mathematician friends. This proved too little too late for his
most beloved creation, calculus. Although he had discovered
calculus in 1666, he did not publish its description until the
year 1693. During that time, a German mathematician named Leibiniz
had created an identical mathematical work to calculus and
published these results in Germany in 1684. As a result, Leibiniz
was referred to as calculus' creator, and when this news came to
England Newton was enraged. While the debate raged on and both
sides about who honestly claimed the rights to calculus, all
communications broke down between Germany's mathematicians and
England's mathematicians. As a result France used the work done by
Newton and Leibniz and perfected calculus and advanced mathematics
in their country.
Newton refused to give up his fight
and continued to believe that England would eventually be
victorious until his death. Newton continued on however, remaining
the humble professor, but with increasing absentmindedness.
Friends laughed at him when visiting his home when they saw the
sight of his front door. He had cut two holes in his front door,
one for a cat and one for the cat's kitten. Often he would wander
off from dinner guests after forgetting what day it was or after
his thoughts had drifted away upon mathematics. He never married
and lived well thanks to several wise business investments he made
during his life. In 1699 he was appointed Master of the Mint by
England, in honor of his service to the country. Newton took this
job as well as other public service endeavors in the twilight of
his career. Finally, Newton spent the remainder of his life and
career tackling mathematical problems that had long baffled other
mathematicians. Often solving these problems in a matter of hours,
he would send the answers anonymously to his peers, such as
Bernoulli as a form of professional humor. Newton died at the age
of 85 in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
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