Isaac Newton Essay, Research Paper

It was a time of great change in seventeenth century England, but a baby was being born on December 25, 1642 that would create more change in the way man perceived his world than anyone before him; he would be named Isaac Newton. England was going through the Glorious Revolution and was in a state of turmoil. Newton was born in the town of Lincolnshire, England, the same year Galileo died. Newton derived many of his accomplishments by using much of Galileo s work, along with many other pioneers of science. Galileo was nearly eighty-two years old when he died and Newton was nearly eighty-five, together they covered virtually the entire scientific revolution (Westfall, 1). Although Newton used much of the work of his predecessors, he contributed more by far to the enlightenment of man with respect to mathematics, science and the universe, than any other human before or after him.

His father, who had died an illiterate shortly before Newton was born, was a yeoman farmer. His mother re-married about three years later to Barnabas Smith, an elderly widower, and Isaac was left in the care of his maternal grandmother. According to Christianson, this devastated the young Newton who had never set eyes on his father, was suddenly parted from his mother .but he nursed grudges and would wait years, if need be, to gain revenge on those he believed had wronged him (12). Newton s ability to hold a grudge and need for revenge appear throughout his life. He was by no means a normal person; in fact, he is now considered one of history’s greatest thinkers. Though the list is long, Newton is best remembered for his three laws of motion and the universal gravitational law. His wonderful ability to absorb and solve sophisticated problems led him to be a great influence on the way society thought about the world in the seventeenth century and was also the beginning of science as we know it today. It was Newton that was primarily responsible for the creation of mechanics and the explanation of planet movement. This, accompanied with his other work in mathematics created the arena for the future exploration in the fields of mechanics, optics, engineering, kinetics, light, and countless others. His achievements would not only go on to affect the future, but he also solidified the infamous Scientific Revolution in his own lifetime. These profound accomplishments and a multitude of other work that had monumental effects on worldview ultimately led Sir Isaac Newton to be known as the father of modern science.

In order to understand the nature of Newton’s genius, we must first understand the period of time in which he lived. Before Newton’s birth, many scientists had begun to make discoveries that would affect his thought. Galileo wrote on mechanics, kinematics and astronomy. Descartes studied analytical geometry and optics. Hooke examined elasticity (Anthony, 89). During this period many others scientists were advancing other fields. The seventeenth century was probably the most creative period in the history of mankind. The scientific revolution, not unlike the industrial revolution, virtually exploded after everything was aligned to make it possible. The catalyst for the scientific revolution was Newton s discoveries and they were the culmination of work from previous centuries. In the seventeenth century, social, political, economic, and religious changes were occurring as a result of this work. Craftsmen as well as men of wealth were turning to science, one for the improvement of methods and products, the other for an exciting hobby. In addition, scientific communities were being formed in Italy, France, and England. These societies provided regular meetings full of cooperation, presentation, debate and quarrels that helped further scientific knowledge. In 1672 Newton was elected a member of the Royal Society which finally gave him access to the finest minds in the British scientific revolution (Strathern 67). They also provided solicit support for the work of scientists. The culmination of all these factors provided for the perfect time for a scientific revolution like the one Newton created (Anthony, 82).

Nevertheless, it was not easy for him to gain the knowledge and background necessary for great discoveries. He was sent to school at Grantham at age 12, where his mechanical proficiency excited some attention. He used this ability to build sundials, windmills, and clocks that were surprisingly accurate. However, he was not a prodigy, as is shown by school reports of him being “idle and inattentive”. In 1656 he returned home to learn the business of a farmer, as was requested by his mother, but spent most of his time solving problems, making experiments, or devising mechanical models. His mother, noticing this, sensibly resolved to find some more congenial occupation for him. As a result Newton’s uncle, having been himself educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, recommended that he should be sent there (Ipsen, 11). At Cambridge, Newton’s studies were on Plato and Aristotle s teachings, which he kept track of in his notebook. This notebook would later be known as the philosophical notebook to scholars. In his third year his interests turned to the air, earth and matter, and the teachings of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo along with the work of many more contemporary scientists (Christianson, 22-23). In his notebook, according to Christianson was the sentence I am a friend of Plato, I am a friend of Aristotle, but truth is my greater friend (22). It was at this time when his mathematical abilities unfolded, but he did not get a chance to use them until the plague closed Cambridge in 1665. The subsequent year and a half would be called the annus mirabilis, a succession of triumphs unequaled in the history of scientific invention, according to Manuel (78). During this time he began revolutionary advances in the fields of mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy that would eventually characterize his career.

One of Newton’s greatest achievements in mathematics was the development of differential and integral calculus. During the plague years, he began his work on calculus, several years before its independent discovery by German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz. The “method of fluxions,” as he termed it, was based on his crucial insight that the integration of a function (finding the area under its curve) is merely the inverse procedure to differentiating it (finding the slope of the curve at any point). Taking differentiation as the basic operation, Newton produced simple analytical methods that unified a host of disparate techniques previously developed on a piecemeal basis to deal with individual problems like finding areas, tangents, and the lengths of curves (Gjertsen, 164). Even though Newton could not justify his methods, he receives the credit for developing a powerful tool of problem solving and analysis in pure mathematics and physics. Isaac Barrow, a Fellow of Trinity College and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University, was so impressed by Newton’s accomplishment that when he resigned his chair in 1669 to become Chaplain to Charles II he recommended that the 26 year old Newton take his place (White, 103).

Newton’s first work as a Lucasian Professor was on optics. He had reached the conclusion during the two plague years that white light is not a simple, homogeneous entity. Every scientist since Aristotle had believed that white light was a basic single entity, but the chromatic aberration in a telescope lens convinced Newton otherwise (White 170). When he passed a thin beam of sunlight through a glass prism, he noted an oblong spectrum of colors. Newton then showed that the spectrum was too long to be explained by the accepted theory of the bending of light by dense media. Newton argued that white light is really a mixture of many different types of rays, each of which is specific to a given spectral color. He then proved this theory by directing a blue band of light through a prism and showing that it was refracted at a different angle than if he allowed only the red band to pass through the prism. All the rays of that specific color were refracted at the same angle (White, 166). In addition, Newton tried to prove that light was composed of a stream of particles and not waves. This notion led to years of clashes with Robert Hooke, a fellow member of the Royal Society, who believed that light was a wave and not particles. In 1704, a year after Hooke s death, Newton published Opticks, a book explaining his theories of light and color (Ipsen, 28). As a result his theories about light particle and the scientific method he used to prove them were universally accepted.

Although Newton’s theories on mathematics and optics were quite impressive, his greatest achievement by far was his work in physics and celestial mechanics, which culminated in the theory of universal gravitation. Even though Newton also began this research in the plague years, the story that he discovered universal gravitation in 1666 while watching an apple fall from a tree in his garden is a myth. By 1666, Newton had formulated early versions of his three Laws of Motion, another of his great discoveries. He had also conceived of the law defining the centrifugal force of a body moving uniformly in a circular path. Using Huygen’s thought of circular motion as the result of a balance between two forces: one centrifugal, the other centripetal (toward the center), rather than as the result of one force, Newton created an experiment to calculate the force on an object due to the centrifugal force (White, 89). Newton’s great insight of 1666 was to imagine that the Earth’s gravity extended to the Moon, counterbalancing its centrifugal force. From his law of centrifugal force and Kelper’s third law of planetary motion, Newton deduced that the centrifugal force of the Moon or of any planet must decrease as the inverse square of its distance from the center of its motion (Gjertsen, 124). For example, if the distance is doubled, the force is one fourth as much. Then in 1679, Newton’s adversary, Hooke drew him into a discussion of the problem for orbital motion. Hooke suggested to Newton that circular motions arise from the centripetal deflection of inertially moving bodies. Hooke, lacking the math skills to prove his theory, conjectured that if planetary movement was elliptical rather than circular about the Sun, the centripetal force drawing them to the Sun should vary as the inverse square of their distances from it (White, 200).

Although Hooke could not prove his theories mathematically, he boasted enough to draw Newton, who did not want to be shown up, into finally proving the law. To do this Newton showed that if a body obeys Kelper’s second law, then the body is being acted upon by a centripetal force. This discovery revealed for the first time the physical significance of Kelper’s second law. Given this discovery, Newton succeeded in showing that a planet in an elliptical orbit is attracted to one focus (sun) by a force that varies in accordance with the distance of the planet from the sun. Then in 1684, Newton was asked by Edmond Halley to publish his findings that proved Hooke’s conjecture. After 18 months of continuous work Newton published the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Westfall, 176). Although Newton could not come up with the constant for the equation he was responsible for developing the equation still in use today to determine the gravitational pull between two objects.

Regardless of the fact that Newton had to be urged to publish the Principia, as it is normally called, it is considered to be the greatest scientific book ever written. These results were applied to orbiting bodies, projectiles, pendula, and free-fall near Earth. Newton further demonstrated that the planets were attracted toward the Sun by a force varying according to the distance from the Sun, and in doing so, generalized that every piece of matter attracts every other piece of matter with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them (Spielvogel, 583). Now that Newton had the law of universal gravitation and the laws of motion, he could explain a wide range for hitherto disparate phenomena such as comet orbits, tides, Earth’s axis, and the motion and orbit of the Moon. This one law which Newton had derived in less than a year reduced to order most of the known problems of astronomy and terrestrial physics and served as a firm physical base to the Copernican world picture.

As a result of his entire scientific discovery in the fields of physics, mathematics, and optics, and his genuine ingenuity and intuitiveness, Sir Isaac Newton almost single-handedly perpetuated the scientific revolution. His theories on the universal law of gravitation and the laws of motion finally served to nullify the last of Aristotle’s misconceptions (Anthony, 189). Even though many scientists had proved Aristotle wrong previously, Newton finally proved that the basis of the universe was not controlled by God, but by a universal set of laws that apply to all matter everywhere. In addition, Newton invented a scientific and logical methodology, which made it possible to reveal the secrets of the natural world by human investigation (Spielvogel 583). It was with the Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy that make up his methodology, that Newton was able to formulate his universal laws (Spielvogel, 583). With these laws he solidified the scientific revolution. People like Descartes and Kepler had already formulated the problems that this methodology would solve during Newton s time. Newton had been born into a time of profound intellectual ferment that was just about to revolutionize the world. The pieces of this mysterious puzzle of the inner workings of the universe had been laid out, yet no one had the insight to render intelligible the picture as a whole, until Newton. When he did, a new era of intellectual freedom was heralded in, producing a scheme of the universe, which was more consistent, elegant, and intuitive than any other before. The old ideas of a God controlled universe were dropped and the church no longer had power to suppress the truth from the people. Finally, the work of Galileo, Copernicus, and Kelper was united and transformed into one coherent scientific theory that revoked all previous misconceptions of the people and truly ushered in a worldwide Scientific Revolution.

These monumental changes brought on through the scientific revolution were surely the work of one of history’s greatest thinkers: Isaac Newton. Sir Isaac Newton was born into a time of great change, yet he grew to cause one of the greatest changes in history. The amount of technological advancement in the world today is all thanks to the work of Newton. His biographies and life s work mark his genius in history books, but all one has to do is pick up a Physics or Calculus book to see how his genius is affecting scholars, still today. His theories on universal gravitation and laws of motion fueled the scientific revolution, which in turn set the stage for future analysis in many scientific fields. In addition, the methodology he produced during his experimentation in optics was so universal, that it increased the chance of success for any scientist of that time, and thus increased the amount of scientific advancement. Sir Isaac Newton was responsible for so many contributions to the fields of science, mechanics and mathematics that it would be a daunting task to list them all. But it is these profound accomplishments and the immeasurable effects that they had on worldview that truly proclaims Sir Isaac Newton the father of all science, and the most profound thinker in history.

Bibliography

Anthony, H. D. Sir Isaac Newton. New York City: Aberlard-Schuman, 1960.

Christianson, Gale E. Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Gjertsen, Derek. The Newton Handbook. Boston, Mass.: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Ipsen, D. C. Isaac Newton, reluctant genius, Hillside, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 1985.

Manuel, Frank E. A Portrait of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization, 3rd edition. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Company, 1997.

Strathern, Paul. Newton and Gravity. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

White, Michael. The Last Sorcerer. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Westfall, Richard S. The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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