
More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

Isaac Newton


(1642–1727, kt 1705) Britain's greatest scientist, who made major contributions in several fields. He was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire (kept now as a museum) and was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. The Great Plague of 1665 led indirectly to his most creative period, for it caused the university to close for 18 months. During that period, in the isolation of his Lincolnshire home, Newton laid the basis for all his great discoveries.




In the field of pure mathematics he developed the binomial theorem and differential calculus (the latter was also being worked on independently by the German mathematician, Leibniz). There followed the experiments in which he showed that white light is made up of all the colours, and that these can be separated into the spectrum by refraction through a prism; from this derives the whole modern field of spectral analysis. But it is gravity which is most associated with that garden at Woolsthorpe, largely because of the story (first told in the next century by Voltaire, who claimed to have had it from Newton's stepniece) that Newton got the idea from seeing an apple fall. For years the supposed tree was shown to visitors in the Lincolnshire garden.




It was in fact the moon which had prompted his enquiries. What prevents the moon from flying out of its orbit round the earth, as a ball will if the string breaks on which it is being whirled around? Attempting to calculate the force required to hold the orbiting moon in place, Newton found that it approximated to the force causing an object to fall. He thus introduced the concept of gravity – the great unifying principle of classical physics, capable of explaining in one mathematical law the motion of the planets, the movement of the tides and the fall of an apple.




The university reopened in 1667; and in 1669, when still short of his 27th birthday, Newton became the Lucasian professor of mathematics. Working now on optics, he invented the reflecting telescope – the principle used in all the most powerful telescopes until the introduction of radio astronomy. Newton presented an example of his telescope to the Royal Society, of which he became a fellow in 1672. His discoveries were known only through his lectures at Cambridge and in papers submitted to the Royal Society until the publication in 1687 of his great work on gravity, the Principia (in full Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 'the mathematical principles of natural philosophy'). Edmond *Halley was instrumental in persuading him to write it and even paid for its publication.




Newton's researches on light and colour were published in Opticks (1704). From 1696 he took an active part in reforming the chaotic and corrupt system of the nation's coinage, and from 1699 till his death he held the lucrative post of master of the *mint.



