Sir Isaac Newton

You’ve probably heard the story of a scientist sitting under an apple tree. Suddenly an apple falls and whacks him in the head. Just then he formulates the theory of gravity. It may not have happened just like that, but the scientist featured in the story is Sir Isaac Newton.

He was born on 4th January 1643 in Lincolnshire, 3 months after his father, who was also name Isaac, had died. He had a difficult childhood as his mother left him with his grandmother after marrying Barnabas Smith when he was just aged 3. She did not return until he died 9 years later. In 1661, Isaac began to study in Trinity college, Cambridge. His study was initially funded by valeting work for wealthier students. He was not a standout student in the university but in 1664 he was a awarded a scholarship to complete his MA.

Unfortunately for Newton, he found himself in a position we are all familiar with. In 1665, Bubonic Plague forced the closure of the university and Isaac returned to Lincolnshire. Confined to his home and with no Netflix to distract him, Isaac started to work on some of the ideas he had. During this time, he worked on his theory of gravity, invented calculus and also did some work on grinding lens and mirrors, starting his study in the area of optics. While studying the origins of colour in light, he inserted a long blunt sewing needle into his eye. During this experiment he reported seeing circles of light in various colours. Most of this work went unpublished for many years.

He returned to university in 1667 and was elected to a fellowship. In 1669 he took over the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics from Isaac Barrow. This position is one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world. Many famous scientists have held it such as George Stocks, Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking. Initially he lectured on the subject of optics. As part of his work on optics he invented a reflecting style telescope. This style is still very common and to this day bears his name, the Newtonian reflector.

Model of Newtons reflecting telescope Credit: Andrew Dunn

Newton made huge contributions to science. Amongst them were his Theory of Gravity, Calculus, Laws of Motion and many discoveries about the properties of light. However he was very secretive, didn’t publish much of his work and took criticism very badly. This led him to become reclusive, not appearing in public and becoming involved in religion and alchemy. In 1684, he became involved in an argument with German scientist Gottfried Leibniz about his discovery of calculus. Leibniz had published a paper detailing calculus which Newton claimed he plagiarized.

Following this, in 1687 Newton published one of the most famous works in science, The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This took him 2 years to write but was the culmination of 20 years of thinking. Although Newton enjoyed great success academically, he suffered with his mental health, having a number of mental breakdowns during his life.

In 1696, Issac was appointed to the position of Warden of the Mint and moved to London permanently, living with his sister Catherine Barton. He was promoted in 1699 to Master of the mint and he held this position until his death. Newton died on 31st March 1727 aged 84 after suffering from abdominal pain for a number of days.

Team Peak with an apple tree grown from a seed he brought to space. Photo: Professional Images/@ProfImages/ National Trust

In the last few years of his life Isaac, told the story of the falling apple to a fellow Royal Society member William Stukeley and so began the legend. In 2015, British astronaut Tim Peak took some seeds from the apple tree in Cambridge that featured in the story to space. These seeds spent 6 months on the ISS and when returned to Earth were germinated and saplings were grown in various places including one at Newton’s house.

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