Considered one of the foremost scientific intellects of all time, Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist and mathematician, who more than anyone else, led the world towards scientific revolution. Here are 10 facts about the life and achievements of this remarkable scientist.
#1 According to the Julian calendar Newton was born on Christmas day
Isaac Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, a village in the English county of Lincolnshire. There is some confusion about the date on which he was born because at the time of his birth England were following the old Julian calendar and had not still adopted the modern Gregorian calendar. According to the Julian calendar Newton was born on Christmas day in 1642 while his date of birth by the modern calendar would be 4 January 1643. It is often said that Newton was born in the year of the death of Galileo, the man whose work laid the foundation for some of Newton’s theories. This, however, is not true as by Julian calendar Galileo died in 1641 and Newton was born in 1642 while by Gregorian calendar Galileo died in 1642 and Newton was born in 1643. It is only when you take Galileo’s year of death by Gregorian calendar and Newton’s birth date by Julian, that this often cited “fact” comes to be true.
#2 His mother thought he would not survive
Newton was born prematurely and he was so small at the time of his birth that some thought that he would not survive. His mother Hannah Ayscough said that he could have fitted inside a quart mug (≈ 1.1 litres) with room to spare. Newton’s father Isaac Newton, Sr. died three months before Newton was born. When he was three years old, his mother remarried and went to live with her new husband, leaving Newton in the care of his maternal grandmother. Newton disliked his stepfather. He wrote the following as one of his sins up to the age of 19: “Threatening my father and mother to burn them and the house over them.” Later his mother returned after she was widowed for a second time. She wanted the 17 year old Newton to run the family farm but Newton hated farming and his school master persuaded his mother to send him back to school.
#3 1666 was a miraculous year for him
In 1661, Newton was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, one of England’s finest institutes of higher learning. After he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1665, the Trinity College was closed for two years on account of the Great Plague of London. During this time Newton did private studies at his home in Woolsthorpe and according to him he was at the “prime of age for invention“. 1666 was in fact the miraculous year for him and his accomplishments in it included the development of his theory in calculus, ground-breaking work in optics, and the notion of gravity as a universal force. He was only 25 years old
#4 The Apple Story is probably true
It was in 1666 that the apple incident took place. On his mother’s farm, Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and began to wonder whether the moon was in the grip of the same force as the apple was. This inspired him to formulate his theory of gravitation. Although it has been said that the apple story is a myth, Newton himself often told the story and his acquaintances confirm the incident, though not the cartoon version that the apple actually hit Newton’s head.
#5 Newtonian Telescope is still popular
In 1668, Newton developed the first functional reflecting telescope. He was able to build it because he realised that white light is composed of a spectrum of colours and found out about the refraction and dispersion of light. He also discovered 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. The telescope that he invented came to be known as Newtonian telescope and it is still quite popular among amateur astronomers.
#6 His ‘Principia’ is regarded by many as the greatest work in science
In 1687, Newton’s work ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy‘ or Principia was published. The Principia states Newton’s laws of motion, forming the foundation of classical mechanics, also Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. ‘Principia’ was important in enabling the industrial revolution that soon followed and is still useful in non-relativistic technologies of the modern world. It is regarded by many as the most important work in the history of science.
#7 He was involved in a controversy on who invented calculus
In Principia, Isaac Newton used mathematical methods which are now included in the field of calculus. Newton had begun working on a form of the calculus in 1666. Meanwhile German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz began working on his variant of the calculus in 1674, and in 1684 published his first paper employing it. This led to a one of the most famous intellectual controversies in history on who invented calculus? Most modern historians believe that Newton and Leibniz developed infinitesimal calculus independently.
#8 He stopped research after a nervous breakdown
Somewhere in the period 1692-1693, Isaac Newton suffered from a nervous breakdown that supposedly lasted for 18 months. He suffered from insomnia, paranoid ideas, problems with memory and mental confusion. In his letters to friends he showed signs of irrationality and his personal relationships declined. The reasons for this breakdown have been discussed by his biographers and many theories have been proposed: chemical poisoning as a result of his alchemy experiments; frustration with his researches; the ending of a personal friendship with Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss-born mathematician resident in London; and problems resulting from his religious beliefs. Whatever might be the reason, after this breakdown, Newton retired from research.
#9 Isaac Newton was the second scientist to be knighted
In 1696, Newton took the post of warden in the Royal Mint, a body which manufactures, or mints, coins in the United Kingdom. In 1699 he became the Master of the Mint, the highest officer in the Royal Mint. Newton took his position seriously and retired from his Cambridge duties in 1701. He exercised his powers to punish counterfeiters and in 1717 in the “Law of Queen Anne” he moved the Pound Sterling from the silver standard to the gold standard. In 1705 Newton was knighted by Queen Anne. His knighthood was more motivated by political considerations connected with the Parliamentary election in May 1705 rather than his contributions to science or to the Royal Mint. Sir Isaac Newton was the second scientist to be knighted, after Sir Francis Bacon.
#10 It is widely believed that he died a virgin
On 20 March 1727, Sir Isaac Newton died in his sleep in London. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. He never married and it is believed that he died a virgin. He divested much of his estates to relatives in his last years. English poet Alexander Pope was moved by Newton’s accomplishments to write the famous epitaph: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said “Let Newton be.” and all was light.