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As a young boy at King s School in Grantham, England, Isaac Newton was a poor student. His test scores were well below average and were near the bottom of his class. One day as he walked to school a boy academically above him insulted and kicked Isaac. This made Isaac angry, so he challenged this boy to a fight after school. Newton easily won the fight that afternoon, but that was not enough.
He had to do something better to avenge himself. He decided he would beat the boy academically as well. Isaac began focusing on his studies and within weeks passed not only his young adversary, but also everyone else in the class (The Life, Time, and Achievements of Sir Isaac Newton 1). This sort of incident occurred many times throughout Newton s life. Some person would start an argument with Newton, and then Newton would think how he could get back at that person. He felt the best way was to more intently pursue his research and to prove that he was right and the other person was wrong.
Newton often had mental anguish and mental breakdowns because of these feuds, other times but they triggered stupendous bursts of brilliant new ideas and achievements. These incredible bursts of insight made him one of the greatest and most influential scientist of his age and possibly any other. Though feuds were a major reason for his success, if it was not the Plague, none of this would have ever happened. While Newton was attending Cambridge, the Great Plague began in London in 1664 when Newton was twenty-two years old. By the summer of 1665 it had spread close enough to Cambridge to cause panic in the outlying districts.
The university was quickly closed and Newton returned home to Woolsthorpe where he spent two years waiting for the plague to run its course. Those two years from 1665 to 1667 are among the most famous years in the history of science (Hart 14). It was there in Woolsthorpe that Isaac Newton developed his most important work. The work was so remarkable that the period he spent in Woolsthorpe is called the miraculous years. Newton used his time on the farm to assimilate all he had so quietly learned and thought about at Cambridge. Although he was only twenty-three when those years started, by the time they were over he had come up with the three ideas that would make him famous: the origin of color, the nature of gravity, and the invention of calculus (Newton s Life and Thoughts 2).
Any one of those ideas alone would have changed history. For the time being, Newton kept all three to himself in order to avoid criticism. Newtons experiments with optics during this time led him to build the worlds first reflecting telescope, which immediately caught the eye of the Royal Society of London, the leading scientific society of Europe (Newton, Isaac (1642 - 1727) 2). The Society asked to see the telescope and Newton gladly sent one along with detailed descriptions of his work and conclusions about the nature of light. It was here that one of his first feuds would begin.
One of Newtons views about light was that it was made up of small particles of differing sizes the largest particles were in red light, which is the most difficult to deflect, and the smallest were in violet light, which is the easiest to deflect. This view was in direct conflict with an eminent scientist and member of the Royal Society named Robert Hooke, who considered himself the worlds leading expert on optics. Hooke believed light was more like sound, made up of waves (Sailor 36). Furthermore, he rejected Newtons idea that light was made up of a spectrum of colors, even though Newtons experiments had pretty much proved this theory. He wrote a critique of Newtons theories that sent the young scientist into a violent rage. The argument soon escalated and went public.
Newton at this time was growing impatient with having to defend his ideas. He complained of the many letters he had to respond to, from all over Europe. Everyone asking him to explain this answer that, when all they had to do was conduct their own experiments and find out for themselves (The Life, Times, and Achievements of Sir Isaac Newton 4). The battle with Hooke continued for many years, with Hooke eventually trying for reconciliation. He wrote an apologetic letter that suggested they were both just seeking the truth, but which also damaged Newtons ego by praising him for contributing to the work Hooke had already begun. Newton wrote back an equally annoying letter that said many things, including his very famous saying, if I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
The suggestion that he was seeing farther than Hooke did not set well. This keep the rivalry between the two great scientists going until Hooke s death early in the eighteenth century. With the death of his mother the following year, he went into seclusion, where he remained for six years. In those isolated years, when he communicated with almost no one, Newton developed an interest in alchemy and pursued his ideas about motion and gravity (Westfall 1). When he finally emerged, it was to release the most astounding book in the history of science. Newtons masterpiece the book believed by many to be the greatest example of scientific genius ever was called Principia.
He released it in 1684 when he was 42 years old (Newton s Life and Thought 5). Principia was a detailed explanation of the laws of gravity and motion, particularly as they applied to astronomy. When it was published, Newton instantly became the leading scientist of his age. It became the last of the great works he would produce.
When Newton sent a copy of part of his Principia work to the Royal society, Robert Hooke accused him of plagiarism and the old feud was fired up once again (The Life, Times, and Achievements of Sir Isaac Newton 6). Hooke, who was old and quite ill by this time, was incorrect in his charge. Most believe he simply wanted some credit for some of his ideas in the same field. Instead, Newton went through his manuscript and scratched out every single reference to Hooke, then refused to publish any more works with the Society until Hooke was dead (Westfall 2). In 1693, Newton suffered another nervous breakdown.
He began to send angry letters to his friends, including the writer Samuel Pepys and the philosopher John Locke, accusing them of things that were completely imaginary (Newton s Life and Thought 6). In the case of Locke, Newton charged him with trying to entangle him with women. Both friends became alarmed and feared Newton was going insane, but shortly after he seemed to recover again. In his later years, Newton did most of his work at home in the study above his bedroom. It was lined with six bookcases, containing over 1, 800 books.
Every single one had his bookplate, proof of ownership, Philosophimur Let us seek knowledge (Newton, Isaac (1642 - 1727) 7) In addition there were thousands of pamphlets, a walnut writing desk, a table, library chairs, 210 prints, and Irish lace tapestries. His friends said he was never for one moment without a book or pen in his hand. He worked on his new passion religious studies for hours daily, concentrating partly on a chronological table of the events in the Bible. He remained President of the Royal Society until his death, but in his later years developed yet another feud, this time with the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. He tried to force Flamsteed to publish his catalogue of stars, even though Flamsteed felt he needed more time to finish it. The saga that followed lasted ten years: Newton used government connections and had Flamsteed's work seized and prepared for publication; Flamsteed took the case to court; the papers were returned and Flamsteed burned them all; and finally, Newton, out of revenge, removed every reference hed made to Flamsteed in Principia, for which Flamsteed had supplied much supportive material (The Life, Times, and Achievements of Sir Isaac Newton 7).
As if this conflict was not enough, Newton was meanwhile battling it out with a German mathematician named Got tried Leibniz. The two accused each other of plagiarism in their work on calculus and Newton stooped to all kinds of questionable antics, including writing articles in his own defense and signing them with other peoples names (Hart 14). He also assigned a supposedly impartial committee to investigate the matter, then secretly wrote the committees report himself. Even after Leibniz had died, almost any paper Newton wrote contained at least one paragraph that was a furious attack on him (Hart 14). The three greatest discoveries of Isaac Newton were all made during the two year period when he was at his family farm in Woolsthorpe while he waited out the Plague (Sailor 37).
The first was his theory of color, or optics, a theory so advanced that years later Albert Einstein would say of Newton: Nature to him was an open book whose letters he could read without effort (The Life, Times and Achievements of Sir Isaac Newton 9) Before Newton, scientists still believed Aristotle's ancient theory that white light is a simple, pure entity with no parts or multiple qualities. Newton proved differently. His work with color began with experiments with prisms. At the time scientists believed that a prism changed the rays of the sun as it passed through, thereby creating the variety of colors that spilled out. They thought light started out white and was darkened by the prism to shades of blue, green, violet, and the rest. Newton had a different idea he believed the prism did not change the light, it only reflected what was there to start with.
Sunlight was already a blend of different colors and each emerged as they were bent differently through the prism. He conducted different experiments that proved his point and then identified the various colors of light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (Newton, Isaac (1642 - 1727) 5). Today, indigo and violet are considered as one (violet) but Newton separated them because he liked the idea of having seven colors to match the notes of the musical scale. He called this array of colors the spectrum, which is what they have been called ever since. With Isaac Newton, as with most scientists, one discovery always led to another.
In this case, his work with prisms and lights led him to invent a new telescope. As he studied light he realized that telescopes of his time were defective if they focused on one ray of light passing through the lens, say a violet ray, other rays would be out of focus, such as the orange rays. The solution, he decided was to build a telescope that focused with a mirror instead of a lens. In a mirror, all colors are reflected the same and would focus together. With that inspiration, Newton built the first reflecting telescope (Westfall 2).
The second major discovery Newton made at the farm was calculus. At the time he called it his method of fluxions (Westfall 2). He came up with simple analytical methods that brought together a whole range of different techniques that had been developed to solve problems such as finding areas, tangents, and the lengths of curves. Those methods became a powerful tool of problem solving in both mathematics and physics. The third revolutionary discovery Newton made in the farm years is the one hes perhaps most famous for the theory of gravity (Westfall 2). This is the discovery that involves the legendary story about an apple falling from a tree.
Its a delightful story. But is it true? That depends on whom you choose to believe. The writer Voltaire was among the first to tell the story, and he said he heard it directly from Newtons niece (Newton s Life and Thought 2). There were others of the time who say they heard it directly from Newton.
Still, many scholars and historians refuse to accept the story as fact. Undoubtedly, if it is not fact, its close to fact. There is no doubt that Newton originated his law of gravity while staying at the farm, where he liked to do almost all of his thinking out of doors. Its also true he was the type of creative genius who often took his inspiration from observation of nature and the events around him that seemed so ordinary to others. But however it occurred, his discovery of gravity was one of the greatest achievements in science.
It was Newton who originated the term gravity, using the Latin word gravitas, which means heaviness or weight (The Life, Times, and Achievements of Sir Isaac Newton 6) He also discovered at this time centrifugal force the force away from the center of a body moving in a uniformly circular path. The tremendous insight that came with all his work on gravity was Newtons idea that the Earths gravity extended all the way to the moon, offering a counterbalance to its centrifugal force. He was able to figure out that the centrifugal force of the moon or any planet decreases as the inverse square of its distance from the center of its motion. Put in simple terms, that means that if the distance of the moon is doubled, the force becomes one-fourth of what it was if the distance is tripled, the force becomes one-ninth if what it was. In 1684, at the age of 44, Newton took all these findings and published what is considered his greatest work. It might never have been published at all except for the urging of his friend Edmond Halley, a young astronomer we know today as the discoverer of Halley's comet.
Halley was irritated by some of the boasting of Newtons old nemesis Robert Hooke. He knew that some of the theories Hooke was taking credit for had been proven five years earlier by his friend Newton but Newton had mislaid his papers on the subject. Halley pleaded with him to find them and Newton finally located the proofs and expanded them into a paper on the laws of motion and problems of orbital mechanics in other words, how and why the planets, moons, and other heavenly bodies move as they do (Hart 14). With his laws of gravitation and his laws of motion Newton was able to explain all kinds of things people had never understood before including the unusual orbit of comets and the causes of the tides. Now all the work that had preceded him, that of Copernicus, of Galileo, and Kepler, was unified into one sound scientific theory (Westfall 2).
Sir Isaac Newton was the culmination of the scientific revolution of the 17 th century. His work became a major turning point in the history of scientific knowledge. It did that simply by bringing order to chaos. Newton extracted the facts from great masses of theories, some of which were completely absurd. Then he took those different facts and those varied theories, and he put them into an ordered whole. If it was not for the feuds and the friendships Isaac Newton had, none of these great things would have come about.
This is why is know as the integrator, the unifier, and the organizer, of all the scientific knowledge available at the time (Hart 16). In doing so, he established the solid platform on which all modern science could build. Works Cited PAGE Hart, Michael H. The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. USA: A Citadel Press Book, 1992.
The Life, Times, and Achievements of SIR ISAAC NEWTON. (17 January 1999). Newton, Isaac (1642 - 1727). 1998. (13 January 1999). Newton s Life and Thought. 1998. (13 January 1999). Sailor, Edward Strong. Newton s Debt to Cudworth.
Journal of the History of Ideas 49. No. 3. July-September 1988: 36 +. Westfall, Richard S. Isaac Newton. Microsoft Encarta.
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