Englishman Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is considered as one of the greatest figures in the history of mathematics and science. He made immense contributions to the fields of physics, mathematics, and astronomy. Famous for his explanation of the laws of motion and gravitation and for his development of classical mechanics, Newton made important discoveries about light, color, and cooling of substances. He was also responsible for the development of calculus, and numerical methods for interpolating or solving equations in an era when there were no computers.
Sir Isaac Newton was born as a premature baby to Hannah Ayscough through her marriage to Isaac Newton (Sir Isaac Newton’s father also bearing the same name). His father had died three months before his birth. His mother remarried when he was three years old, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother. Later on, Isaac’s mother and his stepfather sent him to live with the Clark family in Grantham so that he could attend the King’s School. King’s school taught Latin and Greek but no mathematics, and young Isaac was not interested in these subjects. He would rather spend his time designing toys. For example, he made a wooden model of a windmill which actually pumped water. He also designed a miniature mill to grind wheat with a live mouse harnessed to it for turning the wheel. After finishing his high school, Isaac joined the Trinity College of Cambridge University in 1661.
At Trinity College, Newton was not particularly an outstanding student. He was a quiet student who preferred to work in solitude. He once read a book on astronomy, and became fascinated by the celestial bodies. However, he found out that he did not understand a lot of concepts in the book, his weakness coming from lack of knowledge of geometry and trigonometry. He realized that he would need to study mathematics. He read works of Euclid, Descartes, and Kepler. At Cambridge, he met Isaac Barrow, a professor of mathematics, and soon the two became friends working together on interesting projects. Professor Barrow was an excellent teacher who challenged his students and encouraged them to achieve their best. No sooner Newton got immersed into some exciting projects under the guidance of Professor Barrow than the university town had to be shut down because of the outbreak of bubonic plague, a deadly contagious disease. Disappointed, Newton returned to his mother’s farm where he started work on many of his discoveries.
After the epidemic of bubonic plague subsided, Newton returned to Cambridge where his professors were dazzled by how much he had accomplished without their involvement. Professor Barrow recognized the gem and requested the authorities at Cambridge to appoint Newton as a professor. As a professor, he would have the time and resources to pursue his research while teaching his students. He taught at Cambridge for eighteen years. During the beginning years, he taught optics, sharing with students the results of his studies. He showed how white light was composed of different colors and could be broken into a spectrum of color components using prism. He experimented with lenses, and built telescopes. In addition, Newton made discoveries in astronomy and mathematics. He was the first to establish the theory of universal gravitation. In the field of Thermodynamics, he developed Newton’s law of cooling which states that the rate of heat loss of a body is proportional to the difference in temperatures between the body and its surroundings.
In 1687, Newton published his major 3-volume book Principia with encouragement and financial help of Edmond Halley. In this work, Newton stated the famous three universal laws of motion. Together, these laws described the relationship between an object, the forces acting upon it, and the resulting motion, and thus formed the basis of classical mechanics. Newton also contributed to mathematics through his development of infinitesimal calculus as well as generalized binomial theorem. In addition, the mathematical legend developed numerical methods for interpolating data and for finding successively better approximations to the roots of a real-valued functions.
In his later years, Newton became a parliamentarian and served one term. He was appointed the president of the Royal Society where England’s top mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers exchanged ideas. He was also made an associate of the French AcadÃ©mie des Sciences. He became the Master of the Royal Mint in 1699 and remained in that position till his death. In 1705, he was knighted by the Queen Anne during her visit to Cambridge. Newton’s accomplishments in mathematics and science were so lofty that English poet Alexander Pope wrote the famous epitaph upon Newton’s death:
Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.