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Newton, Sir Isaac

Category: Genius

Sir Isaac Newton PRS MP (1642 – 1727) was an English physicist and mathematician who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution.  It was Newton's conception of the Universe based upon Natural and rationally understandable laws that also became one of the seeds for the Enlightenment.

As a mathematician, he shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the invention of the infinitesimal calculus.  In addition to his work on the calculus,  Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, and developed Newton's method for approximating the roots of a function.  Newton's work has been said to have  "distinctly advanced every branch of mathematics then studied".

A National Geographic picture showing some of his discoveries and inventions.

His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for most of classical mechanics.  In this work, Newton stated the three universal laws of motion that enabled many of the advances of the Industrial Revolution and are still the underpinnings of the non-relativistic technologies of the modern world. He used the Latin word gravitas (weight) for the effect that would become known as gravity, and defined the law of universal gravitation. 

Newton's Principia also demonstrated that the motion of objects on the Earth and that of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. By deriving Kepler's laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the cosmos.   Newton worked out a proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector and first communicated his results to the Royal Society in De motu corporum in gyrum.

Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis by 'first and last ratios', gave the first analytical determination (based on Boyle's law) of the speed of sound in air, inferred the oblateness of the spheroidal figure of the Earth, accounted for the precession of the equinoxes as a result of the Moon's gravitational attraction on the Earth's oblateness, initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more.

Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope.  He ground his own mirrors out of a custom composition of highly reflective speculum metal, and in late 1668 was able to demonstrate the result.


He also developed a theory of colour, based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours of the visible spectrum.  He observed that colour is the result of objects interacting with already-coloured light rather than objects generating the colour themselves. This is known as Newton's theory of colour.


Newton became president of the Royal Society. He also served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.  These appointments were intended as sinecures, but Newton took them seriously, retiring from his Cambridge duties in 1701, and exercising his power to reform the currency and punish clippers and counterfeiters. Newton had himself made a justice of the peace then conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects between June 1698 and Christmas 1699. Newton successfully prosecuted 28 coiners.  As Master of the Mint in 1717 in the "Law of Queen Anne" Newton moved the Pound Sterling de facto from the silver standard to the gold standard. 

William Blake's portrayal of Newton

Where did his genius come from?

Isaac Newton was born prematurely, [premature birth] a tiny baby who was born three months after the death of his father. When Newton was three, his mother remarried and went to live with her new husband, the Reverend Barnabus Smith, leaving her son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough. Not surprisingly, Newton disliked his stepfather and maintained some enmity towards his mother for marrying him. According to Wikipedia, the Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen considers it "fairly certain" that Newton had Asperger syndrome [a form of autism], but I think this is a gross oversimplification. All that is clear is that whatever damage had been done to him by being premature, had left him wide open to the spiritual world and a true right brainer. [see Brain split].  He was also left handed.  

He was imaginative, highly emotional, sensitive and easily hurt, for example, Newton was at one time reluctant to publish his calculus because he feared controversy and criticism.  When Robert Hooke criticised some of Newton's ideas, Newton was so upset that he withdrew from public debate.  Newton acquired a circle of admirers, including the Swiss-born mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, with whom he formed an intense relationship. This abruptly ended in 1693, and at the same time Newton suffered a nervous breakdown.  Newton never married.

He was modest and self effacing, the ego was well squashed, he said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants".

He was also enough of a right brainer to be an alchemist.  Alchemy was, in those days, an extremely handy smoke screen for the deeply spiritual, but his career was dogged by the problems caused by the Church.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. In that day, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford was required to become an ordained Anglican priest. Initially, he used the fact that there was no specific deadline for ordination, to postpone it indefinitely. The problem became more severe later when Newton was elected for the prestigious Lucasian Chair.  However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required that the holder not be active in the church. Newton argued that this should exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose permission was needed, accepted this argument. Thus a conflict between Newton's spirituality and Anglican orthodoxy was averted.

Although whilst he was at Trinity College, Cambridge, he did make discoveries,  Newton worked better alone away from institutions.  Soon after Newton had obtained his degree in August 1665, the university temporarily closed as a precaution against the Great Plague and he continued his studies at home.  There with his widowed mother [widowed for the second time], he developed his theories on calculus, optics and the law of gravitation.

William Stukeley recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726:

 ... We went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. "why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground," thought he to him self: occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: "why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths centre, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the centre. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple."

After his death, Newton's hair was examined and found to contain mercury. But it seems to me that aside from the obvious brain configuration he acquired, most of his greatest wisdom and inspiration was derived from this form of quiet contemplation and detachment in a safe house.

I suspect that few people understand or appreciate the influence that Alchemy and thus spirituality had on his thinking.  In his Hypothesis of Light of 1675, Newton posited the existence of the 'ether' to transmit forces between ‘particles’. Ether is energy and ‘particles’ are objects with function - atoms.  Contact with Henry More, another alchemist calling himself a theosophist [more smoke screens] gave him the idea of attraction and repulsion between 'particles'. John Maynard Keynes, who acquired many of Newton's writings on alchemy, stated that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians."

Newton said  "Are not gross Bodies and Light convertible into one another, ...and may not Bodies receive much of their Activity from the Particles of Light which enter their Composition?"  Light is not light it is Light Spirit.  He was only voicing what had been said for millenia by every mystic that ever lived.  Form is function ‘crystalised’.  But poor man, he was living at the wrong time and in the wrong part of the world, in China and India and Japan they would have simply said – of course it is.

Newton's postulate of an invisible force able to act over vast distances, even led to him being criticised for introducing "occult agencies" into science.  In the 1690s, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with his rejection of a literal interpretation of the Bible – he had the temerity to suggest it might be symbolic.  He also rejected the Church's concept of the Trinity. In an age notable for its religious intolerance, there are few public expressions of Newton's views, it is worth adding that he refused on his death bed, to receive the sacrament when it was offered to him.

Towards the end of his life, Newton took up residence at Cranbury Park, near Winchester with his niece and her husband, until his death in 1727. His half-niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, served as his hostess in social affairs at his house on Jermyn Street in London; he was her "very loving Uncle," according to his letter to her when she was recovering from smallpox.

Newton died in his sleep in London on 20 March 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. A bachelor, he had divested much of his estate to relatives during his last years, and died intestate.

Newton wrote:

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 sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.


"Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. "


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