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Newton, Sir Isaac (1642-1727), mathematician and physicist, one of the foremost scientific intellects of all time. Born at Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he attended school, he entered Cambridge University in 1661; he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667, and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. He remained at the university, lecturing in most years, until 1696. Of these Cambridge years, in which Newton was at the height of his creative power, he singled out 1665-1666 (spent largely in Lincolnshire because of plague in Cambridge) as "the prime of my age for invention". During two to three years of intense mental effort he prepared Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) commonly known as the Principia, although this was not published until 1687.
As a firm opponent of the attempt by King James II to make the universities into Catholic institutions, Newton was elected Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge to the Convention Parliament of 1689, and sat again in 1701-1702. Meanwhile, in 1696 he had moved to London as Warden of the Royal Mint. He became Master of the Mint in 1699, an office he retained to his death. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1671, and in 1703 he became President, being annually re-elected for the rest of his life. His major work, Opticks, appeared the next year; he was knighted in Cambridge in 1705.
As Newtonian science became increasingly accepted on the Continent, and especially after a general peace was restored in 1714, following the War of the Spanish Succession, Newton became the most highly esteemed natural philosopher in Europe. His last decades were passed in revising his major works, polishing his studies of ancient history, and defending himself against critics, as well as carrying out his official duties. Newton was modest, diffident, and a man of simple tastes. He was angered by criticism or opposition, and harboured resentment; he was harsh towards enemies but generous to friends. In government, and at the Royal Society, he proved an able administrator. He never married and lived modestly, but was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.
Newton has been regarded for almost 300 years as the founding examplar of modern physical science, his achievements in experimental investigation being as innovative as those in mathematical research. With equal, if not greater, energy and originality he also plunged into chemistry, the early history of Western civilization, and theology; among his special studies was an investigation of the form and dimensions, as described in the Bible, of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
In 1664, while still a student, Newton read recent work on optics and light by the English physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke; he also studied both the mathematics and the physics of the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes. He investigated the refraction of light by a glass prism; developing over a few years a series of increasingly elaborate, refined, and exact experiments, Newton discovered measurable, mathematical patterns in the phenomenon of colour. He found white light to be a mixture of infinitely varied coloured rays (manifest in the rainbow and the spectrum), each ray definable by the angle through which it is refracted on entering or leaving a given transparent medium. He correlated this notion with his study of the interference colours of thin films (for example, of oil on water, or soap bubbles), using a simple technique of extreme acuity to measure the thickness of such films. He held that light consisted of streams of minute particles. From his experiments he could infer the magnitudes of the transparent "corpuscles" forming the surfaces of bodies, which, according to their dimensions, so interacted with white light as to reflect, selectively, the different observed colours of those surfaces.
The roots of these unconventional ideas were with Newton by about 1668; when first expressed (tersely and partially) in public in 1672 and 1675, they provoked hostile criticism, mainly because colours were thought to be modified forms of homogeneous white light. Doubts, and Newton's rejoinders, were printed in the learned journals. Notably, the scepticism of Christiaan Huygens and the failure of the French physicist Edmé Mariotte to duplicate Newton's refraction experiments in 1681 set scientists on the Continent against him for a generation. The publication of Opticks, largely written by 1692, was delayed by Newton until the critics were dead. The book was still imperfect: the colours of diffraction defeated Newton. Nevertheless, Opticks established itself, from about 1715, as a model of the interweaving of theory with quantitative experimentation.
In mathematics too, early brilliance appeared in Newton's student notes. He may have learnt geometry at school, though he always spoke of himself as self-taught; certainly he advanced through studying the writings of his compatriots William Oughtred and John Wallis, and of Descartes and the Dutch school. Newton made contributions to all branches of mathematics then studied, but is especially famous for his solutions to the contemporary problems in analytical geometry of drawing tangents to curves (differentiation) and defining areas bounded by curves (integration). Not only did Newton discover that these problems were inverse to each other, but he discovered general methods of resolving problems of curvature, embraced in his "method of fluxions" and "inverse method of fluxions", respectively equivalent to Leibniz's later differential and integral calculus. Newton used the term "fluxion" (from Latin meaning "flow") because he imagined a quantity "flowing" from one magnitude to another. Fluxions were expressed algebraically, as Leibniz's differentials were, but Newton made extensive use also (especially in the Principia) of analogous geometrical arguments. Late in life, Newton expressed regret for the algebraic style of recent mathematical progress, preferring the geometrical method of the Classical Greeks, which he regarded as clearer and more rigorous.
Newton's work on pure mathematics was virtually hidden from all but his correspondents until 1704, when he published, with Opticks, a tract on the quadrature of curves (integration) and another on the classification of the cubic curves. His Cambridge lectures, delivered from about 1673 to 1683, were published in 1707.
The Calculus Priority Dispute
Newton had the essence of the methods of fluxions by 1666. The first to become known, privately, to other mathematicians, in 1668, was his method of integration by infinite series. In Paris in 1675 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently evolved the first ideas of his differential calculus, outlined to Newton in 1677. Newton had already described some of his mathematical discoveries to Leibniz, not including his method of fluxions. In 1684 Leibniz published his first paper on calculus; a small group of mathematicians took up his ideas.
In the 1690s Newton's friends proclaimed the priority of Newton's methods of fluxions. Supporters of Leibniz asserted that he had communicated the differential method to Newton, although Leibniz had claimed no such thing. Newtonians then asserted, rightly, that Leibniz had seen papers of Newton's during a London visit in 1676; in reality, Leibniz had taken no notice of material on fluxions. A violent dispute sprang up, part public, part private, extended by Leibniz to attacks on Newton's theory of gravitation and his ideas about God and creation; it was not ended even by Leibniz's death in 1716. The dispute delayed the reception of Newtonian science on the Continent, and dissuaded British mathematicians from sharing the researches of Continental colleagues for a century.
IV MECHANICS AND GRAVITATION
According to the well-known story, it was on seeing an apple fall in his orchard at some time during 1665 or 1666 that Newton conceived that the same force governed the motion of the Moon and the apple. He calculated the force needed to hold the Moon in its orbit, as compared with the force pulling an object to the ground. He also calculated the centripetal force needed to hold a stone in a sling, and the relation between the length of a pendulum and the time of its swing. These early explorations were not soon exploited by Newton, though he studied astronomy and the problems of planetary motion.
Correspondence with Hooke (1679-1680) redirected Newton to the problem of the path of a body subjected to a centrally directed force that varies as the inverse square of the distance; he determined it to be an ellipse, so informing Edmond Halley in August 1684. Halley's interest led Newton to demonstrate the relationship afresh, to compose a brief tract on mechanics, and finally to write the Principia.
Book I of the Principia states the foundations of the science of mechanics, developing upon them the mathematics of orbital motion round centres of force. Newton identified gravitation as the fundamental force controlling the motions of the celestial bodies. He never found its cause. To contemporaries who found the idea of attractions across empty space unintelligible, he conceded that they might prove to be caused by the impacts of unseen particles.
Book II inaugurates the theory of fluids: Newton solves problems of fluids in movement and of motion through fluids. From the density of air he calculated the speed of sound waves.
Book III shows the law of gravitation at work in the universe: Newton demonstrates it from the revolutions of the six known planets, including the Earth, and their satellites. However, he could never quite perfect the difficult theory of the Moon's motion. Comets were shown to obey the same law; in later editions, Newton added conjectures on the possibility of their return. He calculated the relative masses of heavenly bodies from their gravitational forces, and the oblateness of Earth and Jupiter, already observed. He explained tidal ebb and flow and the precession of the equinoxes from the forces exerted by the Sun and Moon. All this was done by exact computation.
Newton's work in mechanics was accepted at once in Britain, and universally after half a century. Since then it has been ranked among humanity's greatest achievements in abstract thought. It was extended and perfected by others, notably Pierre Simon de Laplace, without changing its basis and it survived into the late 19th century before it began to show signs of failing. See Quantum Theory; Relativity.
V ALCHEMY AND CHEMISTRY
Newton left a mass of manuscripts on the subjects of alchemy and chemistry, then closely related topics. Most of these were extracts from books, bibliographies, dictionaries, and so on, but a few are original. He began intensive experimentation in 1669, continuing till he left Cambridge, seeking to unravel the meaning that he hoped was hidden in alchemical obscurity and mysticism. He sought understanding of the nature and structure of all matter, formed from the "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles" that he believed God had created. Most importantly in the "Queries" appended to "Opticks" and in the essay "On the Nature of Acids" (1710), Newton published an incomplete theory of chemical force, concealing his exploration of the alchemists, which became known a century after his death.
VI HISTORICAL AND CHRONOLOGICAL STUDIES
Newton owned more books on humanistic learning than on mathematics and science; all his life he studied them deeply. His unpublished "classical scholia"explanatory notes intended for use in a future edition of the Principiareveal his knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophy; he read the Fathers of the Church even more deeply. Newton sought to reconcile Greek mythology and record with the Bible, considered the prime authority on the early history of mankind. In his work on chronology he undertook to make Jewish and pagan dates compatible, and to fix them absolutely from an astronomical argument about the earliest constellation figures devised by the Greeks. He put the fall of Troy at 904 BC, about 500 years later than other scholars; this was not well received.
VII RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS AND PERSONALITY
Newton also wrote on Judaeo-Christian prophecy, whose decipherment was essential, he thought, to the understanding of God. His book on the subject, which was reprinted well into the Victorian Age, represented lifelong study. Its message was that Christianity went astray in the 4th century AD, when the first Council of Nicaea propounded erroneous doctrines of the nature of Christ. The full extent of Newton's unorthodoxy was recognized only in the present century: but although a critic of accepted Trinitarian dogmas and the Council of Nicaea, he possessed a deep religious sense, venerated the Bible and accepted its account of creation. In late editions of his scientific works he expressed a strong sense of God's providential role in nature.
Newton published an edition of Geographia generalis by the German geographer Varenius in 1672. His own letters on optics appeared in print from 1672 to 1676. Then he published nothing until the Principia (published in Latin in 1687; revised in 1713 and 1726; and translated into English in 1729). This was followed by Opticks in 1704; a revised edition in Latin appeared in 1706. Posthumously published writings include The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), The System of the World (1728), the first draft of Book III of the Principia, and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733).
Contributed By: Alfred Rupert Hall
"Sir Isaac Newton" Microsoft® Encarta®. Copyright © 1998 Microsoft Corporation.
When Sir Isaac Newton died in 1727, he left behind no will and an enormous stack of papers. His surviving correspondences, notes, and manuscripts contain an estimated 10 million words, enough to fill up roughly 150 novel-length books. There are pages upon pages of scientific and mathematical brilliance. But there are also pages that reveal another side of Newton, a side his descendants tried to keep hidden from the public.
Even in his lifetime, Newton was hailed as an eminent scientist and mathematician of unparalleled genius. But Newton also studied alchemy and religion. He wrote a forensic analysis of the Bible in an effort to decode divine prophecies. He held unorthodox religious views, rejecting the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. After his death, Newton’s heir, John Conduitt, the husband of his half-niece Catherine Barton, feared that one of the fathers of the Enlightenment would be revealed as an obsessive heretic. And so for hundreds of years few people saw his work. It was only in the 1960s that some of Newton’s papers were widely published.
The story of Newton’s writing and how it has survived to the modern day is the subject of a new book, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts. Author Sarah Dry traces their mysterious and precarious history and reveals both the lucky twists and purposeful turns that kept the papers safe.
We spoke to Dry about the famous luminary, his beliefs both rational and not, and the different ways that people have thought about Newton throughout history.
WIRED: Why did you decide to trace what happened to Isaac Newton’s papers?
Sarah Dry: In the history of science there is no greater figure than Newton. He was this shining emblem of Enlightenment rationality. If you ask people to name a scientist they’re going to say Newton, Einstein, or Darwin. So he’s become an icon, both more and less than human.
But there’s always been a great mystery surrounding him. You tell people you’re working on Newton and they say, “Oh yeah, wasn’t he an alchemist?” And it makes them feel like they know something that changes our ideas about this great man. I think there’s a real draw to sort of have this cake and eat it too – to have this super rationalist saint, and also his secret obsessions.
One mystery was why there was no complete edited collection of his papers. There’s a section in the book where I talk about how the great Continental scientists had all had their due by the early 20th century. But nobody had gotten to Newton. And the question was why would there be this hole around Newton?
Then there’s the detective story of what happened to these papers that Newton left behind, and how has it taken so long for them to come to light. There’s no conspiracy, but there is some suppression, some neglect, and some confusion about the contents of the papers.
WIRED: How much of Newton’s writing has survived?
Dry: A huge amount. There’s roughly 10 million words that Newton left. Around half of the writing is religious, and there are about 1 million words on alchemical material, most of which is copies of other people’s stuff. There are about 1 million words related to his work as Master of the Mint. And then roughly 3 million related to science and math.
WIRED: Did you read through all this work yourself?
Dry: [Laughs] The book isn’t really about the contents of the paper. It’s more about how others have made sense of all this work. And one of the messages of the book is that getting too involved in the papers can be hazardous to your health. One of the first editors of the papers said an older man should take up the task, because he’d have less to lose than a younger man.
This is highly technical stuff. The alchemical stuff is technical, the scientific stuff is technical, the religious stuff is technical. I was more interested in the papers and the characters that worked on them. One person was David Brewster, who wrote a biography of Newton during the Victorian Era. He fought long and hard to resuscitate Newton’s reputation. But he was also one of these Victorians that had to tell the truth. So when he published his biography [in 1855], it included much of the heresy and alchemy, despite the fact that Brewster was a good orthodox Protestant.
One of my hopes is that this book will inspire people to go and look at the papers. You will feel overwhelmed and confused. But that’s what people have felt in the past.
WIRED: Did you have any particular favorite episodes in the history of Newton’s papers?
Dry: When the papers came to Cambridge in the late 1800s, they were unsorted and chaotic. And the two men given to sorting them were John Couch Adams and George Stokes. Adams was the co-discoverer of Neptune. He famously never wrote anything down. And Stokes was just as great a physicist, but he wrote everything down. He in fact wrote 10,000 letters. So these two guys get the papers, and then they sit on them for 16 years; they basically procrastinate.
When actually confronted with Newton’s paper, they were horrified and dismayed. Here was this great scientific hero. But he also wrote about alchemy and even more about religious matters. Newton spent a long time writing a lot of unfinished treatises. Sometimes he would produce six or seven copies of the same thing. And I think it was disappointing to see your intellectual father copying this stuff over and over. So the way Adams and Stokes dealt with it was to say that, “His power of writing a beautiful hand was evidently a snare to him.” Basically, they said he didn’t like this stuff, he just liked his own writing.
There’s also Grace Babson, who created the largest collection of Newton objects and papers in America. She was married to a man who got rich predicting the crash of 1929. And Roger Babson [her husband] based his market research on Newtonian principles, using the idea that for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction. The market goes up so it must come down. Interestingly, he thought of gravity as an evil scourge. He had some relatives that drowned, and he thought that it was because gravity pulled them down. So he started the Gravity Research Foundation, which went on to do research into anti-gravity technology. It was completely wacky, but it still exists today. An interesting note, though, is that it funds an essay prize, and Stephen Hawking won that prize three times.
I think the highlight of the book is John Maynard Keynes buying the papers at auction [in 1936]. He’s an economist at the height of his powers, applying this hyper rational analysis to the economy. And he’s this cultured aesthete. He was wealthy and he was able to just sort of grab Newton’s alchemical writings. This had a major impact on what we know about Newton because Keynes kept the papers together. There’s the chance that, if the papers had been more widely dispersed, we might not have access to all of them today.
WIRED: What did people think about Newton in the past, and how has our conception of him changed in the modern day?
Dry: Right after Newton died, he was given a monument in Westminster Abbey. Newton was very famous during his life and after that he’s almost like a god. He had been sanctified. Part of history is this process of increasing humanization of Newton. And of making him a more complex person; Newton the man, as opposed to his created ideas.
Soon after he died, Newton’s religious views were the subject of much speculation and many hoped his papers would reveal the truth of what he really believed. His descendants made sure very few saw the papers because they were a treasure trove of dirt on the man. He had complex religious beliefs, subscribing to a heresy called anti-Trinitarianism. Basically, he didn’t believe that Christ was as powerful as God. His papers were bursting with evidence for just how heretical his views were.
Nowadays, we have a different appetite or tolerance for scientists who had mystical beliefs. We have become increasingly tolerant of his heretical views, which have seemed less problematic. Sometimes, people can still get very upset about the alchemy. But there’s actually very little that he left of his own work in alchemy. Most of it is copies of other people’s stuff that he indexed and made notes on. It’s hard to know what he thought about it, because we don’t know quite what he was doing.
WIRED: Now that nearly all the material is available online, do you think people will come to understand Newton better as a person?
__Dry: __It’s an interesting question. And, depending on how kind of postmodern you want to get, I think it comes down to this question of what it means to know a person. And what do we think counts as knowledge about a person. In a simple way, yes, the easy access to this material will make it impossible for serious scholars to ignore the fact that Newton spent a lot of time on non-scientific things. But the question is how much are all these things related.
In the 1960s and 70s, unity was a big issue. People wanted to show that the alchemy and the theology was related to the science. I think now there’s less of a need for that. Historians say that Newton, like us, could hold different thoughts in his head at different times. So he had his theological hat, and his scientific hat, and his alchemical hat.
But the more fundamental thing is this: Do we think that the things a person says in public or the things a person writes in private say more about them? I think that’s an interesting question, especially for our moment of Twitter and Facebook. We tend to feel the private is more true somehow. But people choose what to make public, and that says something about them too.
WIRED: Newton burned a few of his papers before his death. And of course he couldn’t have written down every single one of his thoughts. Are there important gaps in the writing?
Dry: One of the biggest gaps, I think, is that there’s no original draft of the Principia [Newton’s treatise on classical mechanics]. If scholars could have one document, it would be a working draft of the Principia.
How did Newton come to his discoveries? That’s what we want to know about any great thinker. That’s why we want to hear about this process of genius and creativity that we can see on this page. But he didn’t leave any working pages of the first edition of the Principia, just a clean copy that he sent to the printer when he was finished.
The Principia went through three editions, and there were many drafts between one and two and two and three. They show a lot, but he actually covered up his methods in his published works. He presented his discoveries of optics in a formal language that covered up the traces of the hard work that one assumes went into it. And it’s because Newton didn’t want people to know how he had come to his knowledge. I think that might relate to his religious beliefs regarding anti-Trinitariansim. He believed there was an elite cadre of people that were given the truth of religion. And the vulgar masses weren’t strong enough.
But then at the same time he left us 10 million words, which is one of the most extensive of any scientist, or even any one person. He wrote so much, and it’s incredible how much of it survived. Newton was famous when he died. But this was the stuff that nobody wanted to see. And the fact that it wasn’t lost is due to a combination of chance and care.