Isaac Newton [1642-1727] Considered to be the physicist and mathematician who laid the foundations of modern physics.

His father died before he was born at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and when he was only three, his mother left him with his grandparents to remarry. Later Newton admitted he was so filled with rage that he wanted to burn his mother and step father in their house.


Before going to Cambridge, he had Lived thru 20 years of violent political and social turmoil; civil war,  and the restoration of monarchy with Charles II in 1660


At Cambridge, Newton buried himself in his studies. Using prisms, he discovered, contrary to the contemporary belief, that white  light is not pure, but is made up of many colors.


A byproduct of his experiments with light and prisms was his development of the reflecting telescope, which eliminates the chromatic aberration of the refracting (light bending) lens by replacing it with a curved mirror.


The publication of his initial work on light drew an attack from Robert Hook, and the resulting controversy in the mid 1670s resulted in his withdrawal from the international scientific community.


His private notebooks reveal that at the same time he became a professor at Cambridge, at age 26,  he began experimenting with alchemy.


The British government outlawed alchemy for fear the British currency would be debased by fake gold. For years controversy raged over why Newton  took up alchemy.  Traditionally scientists have dismissed Newton’s work on alchemy as scientifically useless, but  now, according to a NOVA documentary, some are taking a second look:


Bill Newman has recreated Newton’s alchemical receipts. Newton believed that in the distant past, people knew great truths about nature and the universe, but that knowledge had been lost. He  thought that knowledge was hidden in Greek myths, which he interpreted as alchemical recipes.  For example, one of his recipes, called “the net”, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphasis, the tale of Vulcan catching his wife Venus, and the god Mars in bed.  Vulcan made a fine metallic net and hung the lovers from the ceiling for all to see.  In alchemy, Venus  Mars and Vulcan are  copper iron and fire. From this recipe Bill Newman produces a purple alloy called “the net”, which was thought to be one step towards the philosopher’s stone.  Alchemy was a systematic process whose results could be reproduced and verified, and some, including Newman,  see it as a precursor to modern chemistry. Other scientists, including those in the Royal Society, practiced alchemy. Newton never published anything on alchemy and finally gave up on it. 


In his early 40’s, Newton was drawn back to science. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was well established. Newton, as Halley and others, disagreed with Descart, who held that the universe, even the planets, moved as parts of  a clockwork machine. They knew that the planets revolved around the sun in slightly elongated orbits, and suspected the planets were attracted to the sun by some kind of force, and that the attraction followed the inverse square law.  Newton was able to prove that this required the planets to travel in elliptical orbits.


He sealed himself away for 18 months to figure out the details of planetary motion.


The result was the three standard laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, set forth in Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Principia),


The Principia was submitted to Royal Society.  This was a new framework for understanding the universe. Galileo still  believed there were differences between terrestrial and celestial. Newton showed both were governed by the same principles.


The three laws: (1) Unless acted upon by external forces, a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion continues moving at the same speed and direction. (2) An unbalanced force applied to a body gives it an acceleration proportional to the force. (3) When a body A exerts a force on body B, B exerts an equal and opposite force on body A.


In 1679 Newton calculated the moon’s motion on the basis of his theory of gravity and also found that his theory explained the laws of planetary motion that had been derived by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler based on position data collected by Tycho Brahe.


On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit was published in 1684.


The universal law of gravitation was attacked by some, perhaps followers of Descart, who thought it was a return to belief in the occult.  Some even thought it was related to his alchemy experiments. 

They may have been correct. Pamela Smith of Columbia University notes that Newton pursued alchemy because he thought it gave insight into the active principles of nature. Gravity did not have an explanation;  It was an occult force, so Newton believed that it might be one of those alchemical active principles of nature.


Recently released documents from the National Library of Jerusalem reveal that for Newton, religion and science were inseparable; two parts of a lifelong quest to understand the universe.  Newton wanted to design a universe in which God was present and powerful. “A most beautiful system of the sun planets and comets can only proceed from the council and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Pamela Smith, of Columbia University notes: In Newton’s day, science and the investigation of the natural world was a part of religion.”


Based on the reading of ancient Christian texts,  Newton was convinced that the central doctrine of Christianity,  the triune nature of God, was in fact heretical. Fortunately he never shared this view; questioning the trinity was considered heresy,  and punishable by imprisonment.


The National Library in Jerusalem holds a document of Newton’s calculation of the year 2060,

based on the bible, as the time for the battle of Armegedon; the end of the world and the second coming.


In his 50’s, Newton changed; he became a public icon.  He sat in the Parliaments of  1689 and 1701-2 as a Whig. He was appointed warden of the Royal Mint in 1696 and master in 1699, when he carried through a reform of the coinage, and was knighted in 1705.


In 1704 Newton summed up his life’s work on light in his Optics, which also included some of his work on calculus.


Newton and Gottfried Leibniz made important contributions to differential calculus independently, but Newton claimed to be its sole inventor. When Leibniz took the issue to the Royal Society, Newton appointed a committee of his own supporters to investigate the issue, and wrote the report himself. The result was to isolate English mathematics and set it back years, for it was Leibniz’ more versatile dy/dx notation which was adopted, rather than the more restrictive ydot.



NOVA Newton’s Dark Secrets (DVD) BBC 2003.

Gale Christianson: Newton biographer

Steven Snobelen University of King’s College