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The life and death of isaac newton a genius

Pocket Describing his life, shortly before his death, Newton put his contributions this way: In fact, though he profited greatly from occasional interaction with scientists elsewhere in Britain and on the Continent—often by mail—he never left the vicinity of the small triangle connecting his birthplace, Woolsthorpe, his university, Cambridge, and his capital city, London.

Perhaps most telling was a remark by a distant relative, Humphrey Newton, who served as his assistant for five years: Newton had a purely disinterested passion for understanding the world, not a drive to improve it to benefit humankind. He achieved much fame in his lifetime, but had no one to share it with. He achieved intellectual triumph, but never love. He received the highest of accolades and honors, but spent much of his time in intellectual quarrel.

It would be nice to be able to say that this giant of intellect was an empathetic, agreeable man, but if he had any such tendencies he did a good job suppressing them and coming off as an arrogant misanthrope. Today we all reason like Newtonians. We talk of physical and even mental inertia, and the momentum of a sports team. To think in such terms would have been unheard of before Newton; not to think in such terms is unheard of today. And so to study the work of Newton is to study our own roots.

If his retreat into the realm of the mind was a boon for science, however, it came at a great cost to the man, and seems to have been connected to the loneliness and pain of his childhood. But they were wrong.

  1. They consumed money as well, for Newton assembled both an alchemy laboratory and a library.
  2. The momentous idea that gravity is universal seems to have dawned on Newton gradually, as he worked on revisions of the early drafts of Principia. Months passed and Halley received nothing.
  3. If his retreat into the realm of the mind was a boon for science, however, it came at a great cost to the man, and seems to have been connected to the loneliness and pain of his childhood. While I cannot say that the book was of much use in aiding an understanding of Newton, the man, or that it was a detailed history of his thoughts and works, at the very least, I will never talk about how modern science killed Newtonian Physics.
  4. For an orbiting body, the first tendency, to move off the orbit in a straight line, arises naturally from that law.

The neck bolster was all the technology needed to keep the infant alive. If Newton never saw the use of having people in his life, perhaps that was because his mother never seemed to have much use for him. When he was 3, she married a wealthy rector, the Reverend Barnabas Smith. Isaac did not say how his parents reacted to his threat, but the record shows that he was soon banished to the care of his grandmother.

Isaac and she got along better, but the bar had been set pretty low. On the bright side, there are also no recollections of his wanting to set her on fire and burn the house down. Young Isaac learned to grind chemicals with a mortar and pestle; he measured the strength of storms by jumping into and against the wind, and comparing the distance of his leaps; he built the life and death of isaac newton a genius small windmill adapted to be powered by a mouse running on a treadmill, and a four-wheeled cart he would sit in and power by turning a crank.

He also created a kite that carried a lit lantern on its tail, and flew it at night, frightening the neighbors. Though he got along well with Clark, his classmates were a different story. At school, being different and clearly intellectually superior brought Newton the same reaction then as it would today—the other kids hated him. The lonely but intensely creative life he led as a boy was preparation for the creative but tortured and isolated life he would lead for most—though happily not all—of his adult life.

As Newton approached the age of 17, his mother pulled him out of school, determined that he should return home to manage the family estate. But Newton was not cut out to be a farmer, proving that you can be a genius at calculating the orbits of the planets, and a total klutz when it comes to growing alfalfa. As his fences fell into disrepair and his swine trespassed in cornfields, Newton built water wheels in a brook, or just read.

There he would be exposed to the scientific thinking of his time—only to one day rebel and overturn it. The servants celebrated his parting, not because they were happy for him, but because he had always treated them harshly. His personality was, they declared, fit for nothing but the university.

Which meant that in exchange for his service and his fees, Newton was treated to lessons that covered everything scholars knew about the world, as long as those scholars were Aristotle: Aristotelian cosmology, Aristotelian ethics, Aristotelian logic, Aristotelian philosophy, Aristotelian physics, Aristotelian rhetoric.

The Unseen

He read Aristotle in the original, he read textbooks on Aristotle, he read all the books in the established curriculum. In fact, Newton, who was celibate and rarely engaged in recreational activities, worked 18 hours per day, seven days a week. It was a habit he would adhere to for many decades. Not a terribly distinguished student, Newton nonetheless managed to graduate in 1665, and to be awarded the title of scholar, along with four years of financial support for additional studies.

Then, in the summer of 1665, a terrible outbreak of plague afflicted Cambridge, and the school closed down, not to reopen again until spring, 1667. According to that lore, Newton sat at the family farm, invented calculus, figured out the laws of motion, and, after seeing a falling apple, discovered his universal law of gravitation. In reality even for Newton progress required many hits the life and death of isaac newton a genius the head, and many years in which to process his ideas and come to a true understanding of their potential.

Moreover, there was no Newtonian revolution at the end of that period: In 1666, Newton was not yet a Newtonian. The ideas he developed then were only a beginning, a beginning that left him baffled and floundering about many things, including force, gravity, and motion—all the basics that would eventually constitute the subject of his great work, The Principia Mathematica.

On his return to Trinity College in the spring of 1667, Newton worked feverishly in two very different fields—optics and mathematics, in particular algebra.

The latter paid off handsomely in that he was soon looked upon as a genius by the small community of Cambridge mathematicians. The salary was magnificent by the standards of the era: The work of Boyle and Hooke inspired Newton, though he never admitted it.

But soon he was not only calculating, he was experimenting, and he was grinding glass and making improvements to the telescope.

Isaac Newton

Newton attacked the study of light from all angles. He stuck a needle-like bodkin in his eye and pressed with it until he saw white and colored circles. Did light come from pressure? He stared at the sun for as long as he could stand it—so long it took him days to recover— and he noted that when he looked away from the sun colors were distorted.

Was light real or a product of the imagination? To study color in the laboratory, Newton made a hole in the shutter of the single window in his study, and let in a sunbeam. Its white light, philosophers thought, was the purest kind, completely colorless. Hooke had sent such light through prisms, and noted that from the prisms came colored light—transparent substances produce color, Hooke concluded. Bored by mathematics and furious with the the life and death of isaac newton a genius of his optics, Newton had virtually cut himself off from the entire scientific community.

Such observations led Newton to a theory of color and light, which he worked out between 1666 and 1670. Years of skipped meals and sleepless nights investigating optics had for Newton led to an intellectual battle that quickly became bitter and vicious.

To make matters worse, Hooke was a brash man who shot from the hip and composed his responses to Newton in just a few hours, while Newton, meticulous and careful in all things, felt the need to put a great deal of work into his replies.

In one instance, he spent months. Newton had no taste for it.

The Loneliest Genius

Already one who tended toward isolation, Newton withdrew. Bored by mathematics, and furious with the criticism of his optics, by the mid 1670s Newton, in his early 30s, but with hair that was already gray and usually uncombed, had virtually cut himself off from the entire scientific community, and would remain cut off for the next decade.

But there was another cause for his new, almost total isolation: For good reason—those interests were decidedly outside the mainstream: Newton believed the Bible promised that the truth would be revealed to men of piety, though certain elements of it might not be apparent from a simple reading of the text. He also believed that pious men of the past, including great alchemists like the Swiss physician Paracelsus, had divined important insights, and included them in their works in a coded form to hide them from the unfaithful.

After he derived his own law of gravity, he even became convinced that Moses, Pythagoras, and Plato had all known it before him. That Newton would turn his ideas into a mathematical analysis of the Bible is understandable, given his talents.

He also calculated, and repeatedly revised, a Bible-based prediction for the end of the world. His final prediction was that the world will end sometime between 2060 and 2344. In addition, Newton came to doubt the authenticity of a number of passages, and was convinced that a massive fraud had corrupted the legacy of the early church to support the idea of Christ as God—an idea he considered idolatrous.

In short, he did not believe in the Trinity, which was ironic, given that he was a professor at Trinity College. It was also dangerous, for he would almost certainly have the life and death of isaac newton a genius his post, and perhaps much more, had word of his views gotten out to the wrong people.

But while Newton was committed to reinterpreting Christianity, he was very circumspect about allowing his work to be exposed to the public—this despite the fact that it was this work, his work on religion, and not his revolutionary work in science, that Newton regarded as his most important. They consumed money as well, for Newton assembled both an alchemy laboratory and a library. In his alchemical investigations, Newton maintained his meticulous scientific approach, conducting a myriad of careful experiments, and taking copious notes.

And so the future author of the Principia—often called the greatest book in the history of science—also spent years scribbling notebooks full of laboratory observations such as these: Dissolve volatile green lion in the central salt of Venus and distill. This spirit is the green lion the blood of the green lion Venus, the Babylonian Dragon that kills everything with its poison, but conquered by being assuaged by the Doves of Diana, it is the Bond of Mercury.

Why did Newton drift so far off course? When one examines the circumstances, one factor jumps out above all others: Just as intellectual isolation led to the proliferation of bad science in the medieval Arab world, the same thing seemed to be hampering Newton, though in his case, the isolation was self-imposed, for he held his beliefs private regarding religion and alchemy, not willing to chance ridicule or even censure by opening the discussion to intellectual debate.

As a result, 15 years into his term as Lucasian professor those ideas remained an unpublished, unfinished work. In 1684, at the age of 41, this maniacally hardworking former prodigy had produced merely a pile of disorganized notes and essays on alchemy and religion, a study littered with unfinished mathematical treatises, and a theory of motion that was still confused and incomplete.

See a Problem?

He had performed detailed investigations in a number of fields, but arrived at no sound conclusions, leaving ideas on math and physics that were like a supersaturated solution of salt, thick with content, but not yet crystallized. The seed that would grow into the greatest advancement in science the world had ever seen sprouted after Newton met with a colleague who happened to be passing through Cambridge in the heat of late summer in 1684.

  • Newton would touch, smell, taste and feel the various chemical compounds he created or experimented with;
  • Newton wrote the following passage about gravity;
  • But while Newton was committed to reinterpreting Christianity, he was very circumspect about allowing his work to be exposed to the public—this despite the fact that it was this work, his work on religion, and not his revolutionary work in science, that Newton regarded as his most important;
  • The net of these two motions is to return it to its orbit, but a bit farther along the circle than where it had started;
  • He did continue to lecture, as was required of him, but those lectures seemed strangely obscure and impossible to follow;
  • But while Newton was committed to reinterpreting Christianity, he was very circumspect about allowing his work to be exposed to the public—this despite the fact that it was this work, his work on religion, and not his revolutionary work in science, that Newton regarded as his most important.

In January of that fateful year, astronomer Edmund Halley—of comet fame—had sat at a meeting of the Royal Society of London, an influential learned society dedicated to science, discussing a hot issue of the day with two of his colleagues. Decades earlier, employing planetary data of unprecedented accuracy collected by the Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe 1546-1601Johannes Kepler had discovered three laws that seemed to describe the orbits of the planets.

In a sense, his laws were beautiful and concise descriptions of how the planets move through space, but in another sense they were empty observations, ad hoc statements that provided no insight about why such orbits should be followed. Now imagine a sphere that is, say, twice as large. It was later discovered why: He had simply shown up at each class section and read from his rough drafts of the Principia.

One of them—Robert Hooke—said he could. The other, Christopher Wren, who is best known today for his work as an architect but was also a well-known astronomer, offered Hooke a prize in exchange for the proof. He was known to have a contrary personality, but the grounds he gave were suspicious: He said he would hold off revealing his proof so that others, by failing to solve the problem, might appreciate its difficulty.

Perhaps Hooke really had solved the problem.