Isaac Newton Biography Essay Example

Study Questions

Why did Robert Hooke and Newton become rivals?

When Newton joined the Royal Society in 1672, Robert Hooke was one of its most celebrated members, possessing a brilliant if somewhat scattered mind, that leaped from discipline to discipline and discovery to discovery. He and Newton had opposite personal temperaments and approaches to scientific research, and both craved the spotlight, so a rivalry may have been inevitable. The rivalry began when Newton presented his first paper to the Royal Society, detailing his work on the nature of light and advancing his theory that white light was a composite of all the colors of the spectrum. Hooke, who had his own ideas about the nature of light, criticized Newton's work, and Newton took offense, claiming huffily that his own discovery was "the oddest if not the most considerable detection which hath hitherto beene made in the operations of Nature," and threatening, in March of 1673, to withdraw from the Society over the quarrel. He was dissuaded from this course, but his rivalry with Hooke persisted, despite attempts to patch things up in the late 1670s. In the 1680s, with the publication of Newton's Principia, it flared anew; Hooke claimed that he had worked out one of Newton's key mathematical formulae a decade earlier. Thereafter, as Newton grew famous and Hooke slid into obscurity, the older man became embittered, and developed a loathing for his rival that endured until his death in 1703.

What was Descartes' theory of the universe? How did it differ from Newton's?

The French philosopher and scientist René Descartes declared that everything in nature, from the working of the human brain to the weather over Europe, could be explained by the motion and interaction of tiny, invisible particles that filled the universe. He applied this to the solar system to explain the motion of planets and moons: the swirling interaction of these particles, he explained, created a whirlpool-like effect of "vortices" that carried the planets around the sun. It was a logical system, but it was entirely based on supposition, since Descartes could not demonstrate the existence of his tiny particles. Newton, recognizing that such an all-encompassing scheme was unverifiable, chose to focus his energies upon what he could prove, using experiments and the iron laws of mathematics. This led to his theory of gravity, the force of attraction between objects that binds planets into their orbits, and which he proved, mathematically, in the Principia. Descartes' defenders objected that Newton had not shown how gravity worked, and that his system thus lacked the explanatory power of Descartes' vortices. Newton admitted that this was true: Descartes' model explained the "why" and "how" of everything, whereas his did not. But Descartes' vortices, however complete and philosophically satisfying, did not make mathematical sense; only gravity could be proven to be truly extant.

Name at least four phenomena that were explained with Newton's law of universal gravitation.

The law of gravity, as propounded in the Principia, had amazing explanatory power. Gravity explained why the planets orbit the sun, as well as the orbit of our moon, and of Jupiter's moons. Fifty years before, the astronomer Kepler had discovered all of these orbits to follow elliptical paths; gravity now explained why the paths took this particular shape. Gravity is also responsible for the movement of comets, which, Newton revealed, transcribed orbits around the sun just as planets did. He also discovered that the force exerted on the earth by the sun's gravity is responsible for the flattening of the earth at the poles and for the bulge at the equator. Finally, gravity explains the tides: the weak gravitational pull that the moon exerts on the earth combines with the pull of the sun to form what Newton termed a "lunisolar" effect and create the daily rhythm of the seas.

Essay Topics

State Newton's three laws of motion.

What was Edmund Halley's role in the publication of the Principia?

Discuss the clash between Newton and Gottfried von Leibniz.

What were Newton's religious beliefs? What was the role of religion in his intellectual pursuits?

What was the Royal Society? Discuss Newton's role in the organization.

Briefly, why is the year 1666 significant for Newton?

What was Newton's theory of light? How did he come to this theory?

Sir Issac Newton (1643- 1726) was an English mathematician, physicist and scientist. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time, developing new laws of mechanics, gravity and laws of motion. His work  Principia Mathematica(1687) laid the framework for the Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. A great polymath, Newton’s investigations also included areas of optics, religion and alchemy.

Early Life of Newton

Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, in 1643, to a relatively poor farming family. His father died three months before he was born. His mother later remarried, but her second husband did not get on with Isaac; leading to friction between Isaac and his parents. The young Isaac attended school at King’s School, Grantham in Lincolnshire (where his signature is still inscribed on the walls.) Isaac was one of the top students, but before completing his studies his mother withdrew him from school, so Isaac could work as a farmer. It was only through the intervention of the headmaster that Isaac was able to return to finish his studies; he passed his final exams with very good results and was able to go to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Newton at Cambridge

At Cambridge, he was able to pursue his interests in mathematics, science and physics. At the time the prevailing education was based on Aristotle, but Isaac was more interested in modern mathematicians such as Rene Descartes. Isaac Newton had a prodigious capacity to consider mathematical problems, and then focus on them until he had solved the mystery behind them. His one-pointed nature led him to, at times, be detached from the world. For example, he had little time for women. An early teenage romance came to nothing, and he remained single throughout his life.

Sir Isaac Newton, has been referred to as one of the greatest geniuses of history. His mathematical and scientific achievements give credence to such a view. His many accomplishments in the field of science include:

Developing a theory of calculus. Unfortunately, at the same time as Newton, calculus was being developed by Leibniz.  When Leibniz published his results, there was a bitter feud between the two men, with Newton claiming plagiarism. This bitter feud lasted until Leibniz death in 1713, it also extended between British mathematicians and the continent.

Mathematical achievements of Newton

  • Generalized binomial theorem
  • Newton’s identities,
  • Newton’s method,
  • Classified cubic plane curves (polynomials of degree three in two variables),
  • Substantial contributions to the theory of finite differences,
  • Use of fractional indices
  • Used geometry to derive solutions to Diophantine equations.
  • Used power series with confidence and to revert power series.
  • Discovered a new formula for pi.

Scientific Achievements of Newton

  • Optics – Newton made great advancements in the study of optics. In particular, he developed the spectrum by splitting white light through a prism.
  • Telescope – Made significant improvements to the development of the telescope. However, when his ideas were criticised by Hooke, Newton withdrew from the public debate. He developed an antagonistic and hostile attitude to Hooke, throughout his life.
  • Mechanics and Gravitation. In his famous book Principia Mathematica. (1687) Newton explained the three laws of motion that laid the framework for modern physics.
    This involved explaining planetary movements.

Newton hit on the head with an Apple

The most popular anecdote about Sir Isaac Newton is the story of how the theory of gravitation came to him, after being hit on the head with a falling apple. In reality, Newton and his friends may have exaggerated this story. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that seeing apples fall from trees may have influenced his theories of gravity.

Newton’s Religious Beliefs

As well as being a scientist, Newton actually spent more time investigating religious issues. He read the Bible daily, believing it to be the word of God. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied with the Christian interpretations of the Bible. For example, he rejected the philosophy of the Holy Trinity; his beliefs were closer to the Christian beliefs in Arianism (basically there was a difference between Jesus Christ and God)

Newton – Bible Code

Newton was fascinated with the early Church and also the last chapter of the Bible Revelations. He spent many hours poring over the Bible, trying to find the secret Bible Code. He was rumoured to be a Rosicrucian. The religious beliefs that Newton held could have caused serious embarrassment at the time. Because of this, he kept his views hidden, almost to the point of obsession. This desire for secrecy seemed to be part of his nature. It was only on his death that his papers were opened up. The bishop who first opened Newton’s box, actually found them too shocking for public release, therefore, they were kept closed for many more years.

Newton and Alchemy

Newton was also interested in alchemy. He experimented on many objects, using a lot of Mercury. Very high levels of mercury in his bloodstream may have contributed to his early death and irregularities in later life.

Newton was made a member of the Royal Society in 1703. He was also given the job of Master of Mint in 1717. He took this job seriously and unofficially was responsible for moving England from the silver standard to the gold standard.

Newton was an extraordinary polymath; the universe simply fascinated him. He sought to discover the hidden and outer mysteries of life. With his sharp intellect and powers of concentration, he was able to contribute to tremendous developments in many areas of science. He was a unique individual. John Maynard Keynes, a twentieth-century genius, said of Newton:

“I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.” [1]

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Sir Isaac Newton”, Oxford,, 18th May. 2009. Last updated 28 Feb 2018.

Further reading: Interesting facts about Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton at Amazon

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World at Amazon

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[1] Keynes on Newton the Man

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