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Isaac Newton: One of the greatest scientific geniuses

This extraordinary man and leading figure in the 17th-century Scientific Revolution wrote Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the most influential book on Physics. Newton and Albert Einstein are considered the greatest physicists of all time.

ht-school Updated: Sep 07, 2020 16:24 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton(Mohit Suneja)

Born in Woolsthorpe, England on January 4, 1643, the infant was christened Isaac Newton after his father had passed away three months before his son’s arrival.

A few years later, his mother, Hannah Ayscough Newton, married a churchman named Barnabas Smith and lived with him. The child was brought up by his maternal grandmother. Smith died when Newton was 12 and the boy was reunited with his mother.


Enrolled at the King’s School in Grantham, he developed interest in chemistry. His mother pulled him out of school because she wanted him to take up farming like his father. Newton found farming to be boring and so was sent back to King’s School. Taking note of Newton’s keen intellectual abilities, an uncle persuaded his mother to let the youngster study at the university. He also worked as a part-time waiter and took care of wealthier students’ rooms.

Scientific Revolution

Newton studied the prescribed textbooks and also read the modern philosophers on his own. He graduated without honours or distinction yet obtained a four-year scholarship. The plague broke out in Europe in 1665 and Cambridge was closed for about two years. He devoted the period to self-education and gained insights that formed the basis of his later works. A popular story about this time is that Newton was sitting under an apple tree when a fruit fell on his head giving him the idea of the theory of gravity. There is no evidence that the apple actually hit him on the head, but he did see an apple fall from a tree and wondered why it fell straight and not at an angle.

Genius is discovered

He returned to Trinity College in 1667 and obtained Master of Arts in 1669. Around that time, Newton wrote the book De Analysi and showed it to his mentor, Isaac Barrow, without mentioning his name on the manuscript.

Barrow showed the manuscript to mathematician John Collins, saying that it was written by an extraordinary genius. Mathematicians took interest in the work. When Barrow resigned his Lucasian professorship at Cambridge, Newton was appointed in his place. During those years, Newton discovered laws in optics, motion and mathematics. He presented the theory that light is composed of particles. Two mathematicians are credited for developing calculus, Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. In 1668, he designed a reflecting telescope.

He worked for 18 months on insights he had got earlier and in 1687 published the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy -- one of the greatest books ever written on physics. In 1678, Newton suffered a nervous breakdown. His mother died the following year. He had another nervous breakdown in 1693. In 1696, Newton got the governmental position he had sought: warden of the Mint. In 1703, Newton was elected president of the Royal Society.

Final Years

In old age, Newton lived at Cranbury Park with his niece and her husband. He had become wealthy but never married and had few friends. He died on March 31, 1727 aged 84, having complained of severe abdominal pain on the previous day.

Interesting facts

Isaac Newton had once said, “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 seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” When he was knighted In 1705 by Queen Anne, it was the first time when a scientist was honoured in such a way.

Newton spent a lot of time studying a possible apocalypse in the future. He believed that God had chosen him to interpret the Bible. He speculated that the world would end no sooner than 2060.

He was a scientific genius yet success eluded him in the political arena. Even though he was elected to parliament, the only instance when he spoke in the house was to tell someone to close a window.

In his lifetime, Newton had a rivalry with German physicist Gottfried Leibniz. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein elaborated on Newton’s theories and even proved some of them wrong.


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