Isaac Newton 1642-1727
English physicist and mathematician. For additional information on the life and works of Isaac Newton, see Literature Criticism 1400 to 1800, Volume 35.
Inspired by the work of Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Nicolaus Copernicus, among others, Newton developed experimental methods and theories in the areas of physics, optics, and mathematics. He is credited with determining the binomial theory and developing differential and integral calculus; his Opticks (1704) is the result of his exhaustive experimentation in light and color, work that led to his devising the reflecting telescope. Arguably Newton's most influential publication, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (or Principia, 1687), explains the movement of the planets through the establishment of three laws of motion and a theory of universal gravitation. Newton's work was influenced by theological as well as scientific principles, and he extensively wrote on theological issues and alchemy. While Newton viewed the universe as guided by mechanical, rational laws, he understood the first cause of such universal machinations to be God. His interest in nonscientific inquiry was long downplayed by critics, but many modern scholars have sought to understand the place and significance of such studies within the larger context of Newton's life and work.
Biographical InformationNewton was born in 1642 at Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, shortly after his father's death. He was educated at local schools before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1661; he graduated in 1665. When the university subsequently closed for two years as a result of the plague, Newton returned home to Woolsthorpe and embarked upon a period of intense study and experimentation in the areas of astronomy, calculus, optics, and mechanics. In 1667 Newton returned to Cambridge to complete a master of arts degree. After Isaac Barrow, Lucasian chair in mathematics, championed Newton's privately circulated papers, Newton was appointed mathematics professor in 1669. In 1696 Newton was appointed master of the mint, and he left Cambridge for London. In his later years Newton spent his time writing on alchemy and theology. Although by this time he had ceased most of his scientific experimentation, he was regarded as the dean of English science and was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703. Newton was knighted in 1705 and died in 1727.
Newton's first published paper, "Of Colours" (1672), was based on a series of lectures he gave during his first three years of teaching. The treatise, which eventually became Book One of Opticks, explained Newton's theories on light and color. Book Two of Opticks was issued along with "Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light" (1675), a controversial essay outlining a new system of nature. The final section of the Opticks contains a series of "Queries" concerning light and color as well as other topics. A completed edition of Opticks was published in English in 1704; it wouldbecome the most widely read of Newton's books during his lifetime. While Newton's Principia was published in 1687, it contained theories Newton had worked through twenty years earlier, during the period he had retreated to Woolsthorpe to avoid the plague. These theories concern the nature of motion and the orbit of the planets, as well as a revolutionary theory of universal gravitation. Astronomer Edmond Halley encouraged the development of Newton's theories and their corresponding calculations; Halley also served as the financial patron for the publication of Principia. The work was published in Latin, and Newton added a "General Scholium" to later editions in which he defended his methodologies. In terms of quantity of words, Newton's materials on theology and alchemy far surpass his writings on science; however, many of the notebooks on nonscientific matters contain passages Newton transcribed from other works he was studying. Of particular interest to Newton was the correct interpretation of Biblical prophecies, not to predict the future, but to identify divine activity in the world. His primary theological writings include the posthumously published Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations upon the Prophesies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733).
The contemporary reception of Newton's work was mixed. While his 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. The Principia was slow to find acceptance, and Continental scholars were generally cooler in their responses than their English and Scottish counterparts. While early critics focused narrowly on Newton's scientific works, modern commentators have also examined his nonscientific writings, in an attempt to provide a fuller picture of Newton and his beliefs. I. Bernard Cohen has shown that manuscripts and other materials that became available only after Newton's death have made a much fuller analysis of Newton possible. He has argued that such documents reveal the significance of Newton's interest in theology and alchemy; the influence of René Descartes' thought on Newton's development; and the progression of Newton's views on the nature and significance of aether. Critics such as Christopher Hill, Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, and Margaret C. Jacob have examined how personal and social issues influenced the development of Newton's work. Hill has suggested that Newton's Puritan upbringing, as well as his having lived in a post-revolutionary society (Newton was born the year in which the English civil war broke out), were both significant factors in the shaping of his thought. Dobbs and Jacob have maintained that an understanding and appreciation of Newton's efforts to "construct a unified system of God and nature," helps to explain his interest in alchemy and theology.
This developing picture, derived from readings of both his scientific and nonscientific work, offers a more complete understanding of Newton and his view of the world. Nevertheless, it is his achievements in the areas of physics and mathematics that have most greatly influenced later thought, affecting virtually all areas of Western culture. While some of Newton's principles have been supplanted by the theory of relativity and other advances in twentieth-century science, scholars agree that Newton's coherent and comprehensive description of the workings of the universe formed the necessary starting point for these modern developments, indeed, made such developments possible.