Sir Isaac Newton

Jan. 1, 2003
The apple of the science world's eye

Born prematurely to a widowed mother on Christmas day, 1642, no one expected the tiny infant Isaac Newton to survive. Not only did he live, but Newton developed Calculus, invented the reflecting telescope, wrote the law of universal gravitation, deciphered the rainbow, and became one of the most renowned scientists and mathematicians of all time. However, getting an education proved challenging for the stoic son of a yeoman farmer. At 12 Newton was placed in grammar school — at the bottom of the class. He climbed rank in playground scuffles, and entertained classmates with whimsical mechanical contraptions, such as a mouse-powered windmill. When the quiet, pondering child did talk to others at school, it was usually to girls. Despite this gravitation toward young women, Newton never married.

When the teen came of age, instead of sending the yet unrecognized genius to college, Newton’s mother charged him with tending the family flock. As Newton spent more time tinkering than farming, the sheep often escaped on his watch.

With an uncle’s help, Newton made his way back to academia. By waiting tables and cleaning rooms for faculty and well-to-do students, he worked his way through his first years at Trinity College in Cambridge. When the school shut down for two years due to the plague, Newton reached his peak and produced some of his most profound work at home. Unlike some great thinkers, he was recognized as a young man for his genius and master works in the areas of mathematics, motion, and optics. Taking a comprehensive natural philosophy approach to his academic endeavors, Newton also dabbled in chemistry, theology, and ancient history.

While he was a modest man, Newton did not take criticism well and could hold a mean grudge — the source of a bitter rivalry with Robert Hooke who refuted much of Newton’s theory on light. Newton also contended with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Leibniz supporters for 50 years over the credit for developing Calculus.

Though a man of simple taste, Newton held many esteemed societal positions. He served as president of the Royal Society for 24 years, was a Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge, was Master of the London Mint, and was knighted.

Source: www.bbc.co.uk, www.newton.cam.ac.uk, www.pbs.org

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