Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), English mathematician and natural philosopher (physicist) is arguably one of the most influential scientists of the last millennium. His discoveries on a range of subjects have ushered in a new era for scientific inquiry. Indeed, Newton’s discoveries in optics, general physics and mathematics would place him alongside such luminaries as Thomas Aquinas, Johann Gutenberg, Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers of the United States in terms of the impact he’s had on Western intellectual culture. It is thus no exaggeration to say that Newton paved the way for Modern Physics. The rest of this essay will flesh out this claim.
Although retrospectively, Isaac Newton’s genius and legacy are now accepted facts, there was no inkling during his early years that this was destined him. Born in Woolsthorpe, England on a Christmas Day in 1642, there were odds stacked against Newton’s survival. He was born premature and his survival was uncertain. Just prior to his birth his father had expired. Even his youth was nothing illustrious, as he even ventured briefly into managing his family farm. The turning point for Newton’s life in science came with his enrolment in Cambridge University in 1661. Here, he came under the charge of distinguished cleric and mathematician Isaac Barrow, who mentored and inspired the young man, especially in mathematics. It was under the guidance of Barrow that Newton would conceive and articulate some of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries of the modern era.[i]
As per an autobiographical account written for his nephews, the major streams of Newton’s scientific work were all initiated during the plague years of 1665–66, when Cambridge was closed down due to an outbreak of plague and the young Newton went home for a short break. It was during this time that some of the cornerstone discoveries and inventions of modern physics came about. During this period, the inquisitive and penetrative mind of Newton started working on the laws of universal gravitation, the development of calculus, and the nature and behavior of light. The findings he made on these projects would enable him to make vital contributions to mathematics, theoretical physics, astronomy and experimental physics. Given the magnitude of some of these contributions, it is fair to say that Newton opened new vistas in these subjects and spawned the development of modern physics. In other words, he began to invent
“a set of mathematical techniques, including what we call the binomial theorem and differential calculus. He did a set of optical experiments that demonstrated that white light is composed of a mixture of all colors of the rainbow. And he theorized that the Moon is maintained in its orbit around Earth by the same force that causes heavy objects near Earth’s surface to fall to the ground–in other words, he began to think about the law of universal gravitation.”[ii]