Astronomer Biography Isaac Newton

About the astronomer Isaac Newton, history and biography of the man who contributed much to understandings of gravity, calculus, motion, and more.

THE EARLY SKYWATCHERS

ISAAC NEWTON

(1642-1727, England)

Major Discoveries: The universal law of gravity, calculus, the unequal refraction of light, the reflecting telescope, and the laws of motion.

Means of Observation: Mathematics, prisms, telescopes, and mechanical measuring devices.

His Story: Isaac Newton was an arrogant, egotistical, irritable, opinionated man. He is also considered the greatest scientist who ever lived.

As a child, Newton did not seem promising. He loved to make model windmills and other mechanical toys, but he did badly in school and even worse at trying to run the family farm. At Cambridge he was disliked by both students and professors, and was about to quit when one of his professors recognized the genius under the offensive exterior and became his special tutor.

From that time on, Newton bloomed. Cambridge shut down because of an outbreak of bubonic plague, and during this enforced vacation Newton started thinking about gravity. Scientists already knew there was such a force in the universe, but Newton found the formula that describes how much force any two bodies will exert on each other.

Newton could not prove his theory with the mathematics available, so he invented calculus to do it for him. Then Newton became interested in the properties of light and made many discoveries about it, including the fact that white light is not "pure" light, but is made up of the colors of the rainbow. He also invented the reflecting telescope--the most powerful kind of telescope in use today.

Finally, Newton turned his attention to motion and formulated the three laws that describe how all moving bodies on the earth react. The first law says a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion remains in motion unless acted on by an external force. The second law says the motion of a body changes in proportion to the size of the force applied to it. And the third law says that every action produces an equal but opposite reaction.

During the time that Newton was pouring out these and many other ideas and discoveries, he refused to publish most of his findings. He wasn't afraid of being persecuted for his opinions, but he was afraid of being laughed at. Even though he didn't bother to publish, his work was well known to British scientists, who were excited by his discoveries. However, Newton was still arrogant and irritable. As a result, he was in constant conflict with his fellow scientists and refused to share most of his work with them.

After many disputes, Newton was finally persuaded to publish Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, or Principia, as it is usually called. It is one of the most important scientific works of all time. The ideas which he presented in it have become the foundation of modern physical science, and his method of approaching scientific questions has become the method of all scientists.

The variety of Newton's work is as impressive as its importance. His study of gravity proved he was a great theoretical scientist. His invention of calculus proved he was a great mathematician. And his optical and mechanical discoveries proved he was a great experimental scientist. Any one of these would have made him immortal.

Newton died at 84, wealthy and honored.

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