Newton, Isaac (Vol. 35)
Isaac Newton 1642–1727
English physicist and mathematician.
Newton's experimental methods and theories in physics, optics, and mathematics crowned the seventeenth century scientific revolution. Building on the work of Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Nicolaus Copernicus, and others, Newton in his Philosophiae Principia Naturalis Mathematica, or Principia (1687), explained planetary movement by establishing the three laws of motion and a theory of universal gravitation. The image of the universe as a giant clock set into motion by God but governed by mechanical, rational rules is largely Newton's legacy. His exhaustive experiments using prisms to study light and color led to Newton's devising the reflecting telescope, while his contributions to mathematics included determining the binomial theory and developing differential and integral calculus. Beyond scientific investigation, Newton researched and wrote extensively on alchemy and theology.
Newton was born on Christmas day at Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. His father, an illiterate farmer, had died three months before his son's birth. Hannah Ayscough Newton, Newton's mother, remarried when her son was three, and left with her new husband, a wealthy minister, to rear a second family in neighboring North Witham. Raised by his grandmother, Newton remained separated from his mother until he was eleven, when Hannah, widowed a second time, returned to Woolsthorpe hoping her son would learn to manage her property. Displaying neither the temperament nor ambition for yeomanry, Newton soon returned to grammar school to prepare for university. He graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1665 with a bachelor degree, but without any record of note. An outbreak of the plague closed the university for the next two years, and Newton returned to Woolsthorpe. In a burst of allout study and experimentation, Newton realized some of his most ingenious work in astronomy, calculus, optics, and mechanics. When Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 to complete a master of arts degree, Isaac Barrow, Lucasian chair in mathematics, read some of Newton's privately circulated papers, and immediately championed Newton's intellectual capability. Barrow retired in 1669, and, at his urging, Newton was appointed mathematics professor. By age 27, Newton
had established a reputation for brilliance. Biographers have speculated, however, that the early years of maternal abandon had deeply scarred his psyche. Throughout his life Newton over-reacted to criticism—lashing out irrationally, and often vindictively, not only at rivals, but often becoming suspicious of his friends, such as John Locke and Samuel Pepys. He was reluctant to share his work with fellow scientists or to give credit to them for their influence upon his work. Unable to withstand the critical scrutiny of his peers, Newton established a pattern of refusing to publish his work until years after its completion. He suffered nervous breakdowns in 1678 and in 1693. In 1696 Newton left Cambridge for London when appointed first warden, and three years later was appointed master of the mint—a post that carried cache and paid handsomely. Thought to be incorruptible, Newton proved to be an effective administrator who relentlessly ferreted out counterfeiters during a period of recoinage. In his later years Newton devoted most of his writing to alchemy and theology, subjects that had held his interest all his life. Newton rejected trinitarianism, an orthodox religious doctrine in the seventeenth century, but, mindful of Galileo's fate a generation earlier, did not make his beliefs publicly known. Although by then he had ended most of his scientific experimentation, Newton was regarded as the dean of English science, and elected President of the Royal Society in 1703. His tenure was marred by an enduring feud with astronomer John Flamsteed, which also earned Newton a reputation for autocratic rule. Newton was knighted in 1705 and died in 1727, leaving a considerable estate.
Newton published his first paper, "Of Colours," in 1672. Based on a series of lectures he gave in his first three years of teaching, the treatise explained his theories on light and color, and eventually became Book One of Opticks. In his experiments with prisms, Newton had broken down white light into a spectrum of primary colors, which led to his theory that light was composed of individual particles or corpuscles. Book Two described experiments Newton conducted with colors of thin films leading to his theory that light could be both reflected and refracted. Book Two was issued along with "Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light" (1675), a controversial essay that outlined a new system of nature. The final section of the Opticks contains a series of "Queries" posed as hypotheses. Newton refused to publish a completed edition of the Opticks until 1704, a year after the death of his nemesis Hooke. Originally published in English, Opticks was the most widely read of Newton's books. Later English editions were issued in 1717 and 1721. Latin editions appeared in 1706 and 1719. The theories contained in the Principia (1687) had been worked out twenty years prior during the two years Newton lived in Woolsthorpe because of the plague. When astronomer Edmond Halley in 1684 asked Newton if he could describe the orbit of planets, Newton replied that the path was elliptical, and that he had mathematically worked out his theory, but had long since misplaced the computations. After Halley's prodding Newton redid his calculations and sent them to him along with a tract, De Motu ("On Motion"). With Halley's encouragement and financial patronage, Newton elaborated and expanded his work, resulting in the Principia. Originally published in Latin, an English edition wasn't issued until 1729. Newton added a "General Scholium" to later editions in which he defended his methodologies. Subsequent editions of the Principia were issued in 1713 and 1726. Composed of nearly two million words, Newton's theology and alchemy notebooks far surpassed in quantity Newton's scientific papers. Many of the notebooks, however, contain passages Newton recorded from the works of others he was studying. Newton's principal theological writings—The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733)—were published after his death. He believed that astronomical computations could be used to match events in the Bible to a chronology of human history, and estimated the universe to be 5000 years old. Newton did not eliminate God from the universe; rather, God remained as prime mover, poised to intervene to keep the planets in their orbits and the sun, stars, and moon from colliding. Newton's notebooks on alchemy suggest that his experiments were an integral part of his understanding of natural phenomena, rather than mystical or occult excursions.
Although Newton's first published paper on light was generally well-received, a few scientists responded with skepticism, questioning his departure from the standard scientific method of establishing a hypothesis or exploring alternative theories. Newton's ideas were especially challenged by Hooke and others who subscribed to the Cartesian theory that light was the result of wave-like motions through a material medium. The essay "Hypothesis Concerning the Properties of Light" prompted outrage from Hooke who was convinced that Newton had appropriated his ideas. Although Newton gained international fame after publication of the Principia, his paranoid personality dampened the accolades his peers might otherwise have bestowed. Time lapses between work completion and subsequent publication led to disputes with others over who discovered what and when. He engaged in a long-standing feud with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who felt certain Newton had stolen his ideas on calculus. Many contemporaries believed Newton abused his power as President of the Royal Society, domineering the careers of young scientists while sabotaging rivals. Until this century, Newtonian criticism had been primarily limited to the scientific work, leading to a skewed assessment of his world view. Nineteenth-century Romantics, including William Blake and William Wordsworth, denounced Newton for what they perceived as his ushering in a spiritless, mechanical universe. Newtonian science did create a new paradigm of thought that affected virtually all areas of western culture, and was germane to the Age of Enlightenment and subsequent "revolutions" in history, law, and political-economy. While some of Newton's scientific principles have been supplanted by the theory of relativity and other advances in twentieth-century science, many remain valid. Today much Newtonian scholarship focuses on the increasingly available theological and alchemical manuscripts. Many critics view both Newton's scientific and non-scientific work as essential components for understanding Newton and as the basis for knowing how he comprehended the world.
Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Mathematincal Principles of Natural Philosophy] (essay) 1687
Opticks (essay) 1704
Arithmetica Universalis [Universal Arithmetic] (essay) 1707
The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (essay) 1728
Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (essay) 1733
The Correspondence of Isaac Newton. 7 vols, (letters) 1957-76
Isaac Newton's Papers and Letters on Natural Philosophy (essays and letters) 1958
Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton (essays) 1962
The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton. 8 vols. (essays) 1984
The Optical Papers of Isaac Newton. 3 vols, (essays) 1984-
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SOURCE: "Chapter XXIV," in Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, Vol. II, Thomas Constable and Co., 1855, pp. 313-59.
[In the excerpt below, Brewster comments in detail on Newton's religious writings, asserting that "if Sir Isaac Newton had not been distinguished as a mathematician and a natural philosopher, he would have enjoyed a high reputation as a theologian. "]
If Sir Isaac Newton had not been distinguished as a mathematician and a natural philosopher, he would have enjoyed a high reputation as a theologian. The occupation of his time, however, with those profound studies, for which his genius was so peculiarly adapted, and in the prosecution of which he was so eminently successful, prevented him from preparing for the press the theological works which he had begun at a very early period of life, and to which he devoted much of his time even when he mixed with the world, and was occupied with the affairs of the Mint. The history of Sir Isaac's theological writings cannot fail to be regarded as an interesting portion of his life, and much anxiety has been expressed for a more precise account than has yet been given of his religious opinions. That the greatest philosopher of which any age can boast was a sincere and humble believer in the leading doctrines of our religion, and lived conformably to its precepts, has been justly regarded as a proud triumph of the Christian...
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SOURCE: "God and the Calling of the New Philosophy," in A Portrait of Isaac Newton, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. 117-32.
[In the following essay, Manuel examines the relationship between religion and science in seventeenth-century England, focusing on the psychological underpinnings of Newton's theology.]
The World was made to be inhabited by Beasts but studied and contemplated by Man: 'tis the Debt of our Reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not being Beasts…. The Wisdom of God receives small honour from those vulgar Heads that rudely stare about, and with a gross rusticity admire His works: those highly magnifie Him, whose judicious inquiry into His Acts, and deliberate research into His Creatures, return the duty of a devout and learned admiration.
Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
During the three decades of his fervid intellectual activity in Cambridge, an almost incomparable period of protracted effort, Newton was sustained by a consciousness of the direct personal relationship between himself and God his Father, uninterrupted by a mediator. For His glory he labored without surcease, finding his only "divertisement" in moving from one subject to another. In addition to the optics, the calculus, and the great mathematical and physical synthesis upon...
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SOURCE: "Newton and Alchemy," in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, edited by Brian Vickers, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 315-35.
[In the essay below, originally delivered as a lecture in 1982, Westfall discusses the proper weight critics should give to the influence of alchemy on Newton's scientific thought, specifically in his work on the concept of force in the natural world.]
On the whole, Newton preferred not to publicize his involvement in alchemy. Unlike his other major pursuits, nothing of his alchemy, or at least nothing explicitly labeled as alchemy, appeared in print during his lifetime or in the years immediately following his death. A few people did know about it. A fascinating correspondence between Newton and John Locke following the death of Robert Boyle reveals that the three men, possibly the last three men from Restoration England whom one would have expected, only a generation ago, to find so engaged, exchanged alchemical secrets and pledged each other to silence.1 John Conduitt, the husband of Newton's niece, who gathered material about his life, knew of his experiments in Cambridge and reported that his furnace there remained an item of curiosity shown to visitors. Nevertheless, the adjective Conduitt used was "chymical," not "alchymical,"2 and in a similar manner knowledge of Newton's interest in the art quickly sank from view. When...
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SOURCE: "Force, Electricity, and the Powers of Living Matter in Newton's Mature Philosophy of Nature," in Religion, Science, and Worldview: Essays in Honor of Richard S. Westfall, edited by Margaret J. Osler and Paul Lawrence Farber, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 95-117.
[In the essay below, Home focuses on the concept of force as a component in Newton's theories of natural phenomena.]
One of Newton's most widely quoted methodological pronouncements appears in the preface he prepared for the first (1687) edition of his Principia. "The whole burden of philosophy seems to consist in this," Newton there wrote: "from the phenomena of motions to investigate the forces of nature, and then from these forces to demonstrate the other phenomena."1 He made the same point in his other great work, his Opticks, towards the end of the long, final Query that he added to the Latin edition published in 1706:
To tell us that every Species of Things is endow'd with an occult specifick Quality by which it acts and produces manifest Effects, is to tell us nothing: But to derive two or three general Principles of Motion from Phaenomena, and afterwards to tell us how the Properties and Actions of all corporeal Things follow from those manifest Principles, would be a very great step in Philosophy, though the Causes of those Principles were not yet...
(The entire section is 9171 words.)
SOURCE: "Newton and the Scientific Revolution," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 95, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 4-18.
[Below, Westfall discusses Newton's role in the seventeenth-century world of science, noting that "the Principia was … a synthesis of the major themes of the scientific revolution. "]
Isaac Newton published Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in July 1687. Seldom has the significance of a book been more immediately recognized. Indeed, its recognition began even before publication. In the spring of 1687, Fatio de Duillier, a young Swiss mathematician who would play a central role in Newton's life during the following six years, arrived in London. He found the learned community aflutter in expectation of the book which was destined, they told him, to remodel natural philosophy (Fatio 167-69). Similarly the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society carried a review of the Principia, which was in keeping with Fatio's report, shortly before the publication of the book itself. Although it was not signed, the review was composed by Edmund Halley, who knew what he was talking about since he was in fact the publisher. "This incomparable Author having at length been prevailed upon to appear in public," Halley began the review, "has in this Treatise given a most notable instance of the extent of the powers of the...
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SOURCE: "Isaac Newton's Theological Writings: Problems and Prospects," in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 35-48.
[In the essay below, Markley surveys current scholarship on Newton's theology and notes that critics have used new approaches to his manuscripts to establish the proper relationship between Newton's spiritual inquiries and his scientific work.]
Over the past fifteen years, studies by Frank Manuel, Richard S. Westfall, and other scholars on the problems posed by Isaac Newton's religious and theological writings have finally put to rest at least some of the hoary myths that had, for over two hundred years, effectively severed Newton the scientist from Newton the alchemist and Newton the supposedly doddering writer on biblical history and prophecy.1 If the dispersal of Newton's unpublished manuscripts in the 1936 sale to Jerusalem, Wellesley, (Massachusetts), and Cambridge (England) has created logistical problems for scholars interested in Newton's "non-scientific" work, the fact that this vast body of material is now more-or-less accessible has allowed Manuel and Westfall to offer preliminary accounts of what Newton's theological manuscripts contain. I say "preliminary" because both of these noted historians have stopped after a few steps of what promises to be a long journey; they have surveyed the manuscripts, reprinted...
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SOURCE: "The Principia: Composition and Content," in Newton and the Culture of Newtonianism, Humanities Press, 1995, pp. 38-46.
[Below, Dobbs and Jacob briefly outline the origin and content of Newton's Principia.]
Edmond Halley (1656-1752), Fellow of the Royal Society and later Astronomer-Royal, was a central behind-the-scenes figure in stimulating the writing of Newton's most important work and in seeing it through the press (editing it, correcting proof sheets, drawing geometric figures, and even funding the publication himself). Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), published in London in 1687 and now usually designated simply by its abbreviated Latin title as Principia, was the capstone of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is often said to be the greatest work of science ever published.
The occasion for Newton to write the book arose in the following manner. Halley, Robert Hooke, and Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the great architect responsible for rebuilding many of the churches of London after the Great Fire of 1666, met in London early in 1684 and discussed a problem in celestial mechanics associated with the sun-centered astronomy of Copernicus: what curve would the planets describe if the force of attraction toward the sun varied inversely with the...
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Wallis, Peter and Ruth Wallis. Newton and Newtonia, 1672-1975: A Bibliography. Folkestone, England: Dawson, 1977, 362 p.
An exhaustive bibliography of works by and about Newton.
Andrade, E. N. da C. Isaac Newton. London: Collins, 1954, 140 p.
Brief, readable biography containing a lucid description of the Principia.
Brewster, David. Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Thomas Constable, 1855.
A competent, standard life of Newton.
Manuel, Frank E. A Portrait of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968, 478 p.
Uses Freudian analytical approaches to study Newton's personality.
Westfall, Richard S. Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, 328 p.
A definitive biography using recent scholarship. Contains an extensive bibliographic essay.
Burtt, E. A. "The Metaphysics of Newton." In The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical...
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