An Ornament of the Human Race

In the midst of all the celebratory merriment centred around Christmas, it is all too common for people, in their revelry, to forget about the birthdays of remarkable individuals. One such revolutionary figure who, all too often, gets overshadowed on this festive day is the great scholar of physics Sir Isaac Newton, a super character who devoted all of his life towards the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, it has, so often, been claimed that no scientist, in recorded history, has devoted as much time, energy, and passionate attention to the pursuit of science than Sir Isaac Newton. By the age of 23, he would have made some of the greatest and most significant discoveries in the history of science.

Sir Isaac Newton

It is almost hard to put into words the relentless preoccupation with the pursuit of science and truth that characterized the very unique character of Sir Isaac Newton. At a young age, Newton would show great fascination with John Bates’ Mysteries of Nature and Art and John Wilkins’ Mathematicall Magick, copying out much of the chemical recipes therein and would further demonstrate skilled craftsmanship with mechanical devices derived from the same books in his building of model windmills, water-powered clocks, and sundials, developments that would, no doubt, equip him for his later experimental ingenuity. Matriculating as a sizar in 1661 at Trinity College Cambridge, Newton would hardly ever socialise and would show great disdainful aversion towards colleagues of his who never took their academic study seriously. In his notes, Newton would even recommend “All graduates without exception found by the Proctors in taverns or other drinking houses shall at least have their names given in to the Vice-Chancellor, who shall summon them to answer it before the next Consistory“.

Just to pass the time, 23-year-old Newton would compute logarithms to over 50 places.

So devoted was Sir Isaac Newton to the pursuit of scientific inquiry that he stuck a needle inside his eye in order to test a hypothesis on the nature of optics; whether pressure applied to his eye would induce colour perception. “I tooke a bodkine gh & put it betwixt my eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could: & pressing my eye [with the] end of it (soe as to make [the] curvature a, bcdef in my eye) there appeared severall white darke & coloured circles r, s, t, &c. Which circles were plainest when I continued to rub my eye [with the] point of [the] bodkine, but if I held my eye & [the] bodkin still, though I continued to presse my eye [with] it yet [the] circles would grow faint & often disappeare untill I removed [them] by moving my eye or [the] bodkin.” 
Contrary to many at Cambridge, Newton spent almost all of his time in intense, fervent study, devouring the latest ideas in mathematics and physics and teaching himself the works of Euclid, Descartes’ Geometry and Principles of Philosophy, and the works of Kepler, Galileo, and Boyle. In one year from 1663 to 1664, Newton taught himself everything that was known about modern mathematics at the time.

Newton’s statue at Trinity College Cambridge where he matriculated on June 5th, 1661.

Newton’s studies at Cambridge, however, were interrupted by the Great Plague, which striking 1665, forced the university to close and Newton to draw to the cloisters of his manor house in Woolsthorpe. It was at his home in Woolsthorpe that Newton would work on his greatest discoveries in arguably the most productive two years that any human could ever have. In 1665 – 1667, working 20 hours per day 7 days a week, Newton would chart the course of modern science. He would invent integral and differential calculus, lay down the laws of motion, the laws of optics, and the laws of gravitation, uncover the nature of light, and generalize binomial theorem. Historians often refer to this remarkable period of intellectual development as the annus mirabilius or “the wondrous year”.

Among this Woolsthorpe period, in 1666, in his darkened chamber, Newton carried out his Experimentum crucis, which demonstrated experimentally that white light is composed of a superposition of all the colours of the spectrum. Such a remarkable discovery underpins a multitude of technologies that we take for granted today, from satellites to telescopes and has extended our senses to a far wider universe that our eyes, alone, would not otherwise perceive. In this much documented Experimentum crucis or “crucial test”, Newton juxtaposed two prisms, between which he positioned two boards, each pierced by a small hole. He then rotated the first prism around its axis to refract one portion of the supposed spectrum. The refracted light remained red even after it flowed through the second prism. This served to demonstrate that indeed the colours were not being created by the action of the prism, as had been commonly thought at the time. Even more remarkable was that Newton discovered that each colour corresponded to a certain angle of refraction, a certain “degree of refrangibility” as he would put it. Blue was refracted at the sharpest angle, while red was refracted at a much gentler angle. No refrangibility corresponded to white light. Newton’s experiment would prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that white light is composed of “rays of different refrangibilities”.

Newton’s sketch of his “Experimentum crucis”

Possessing a highly reclusive nature, Newton would refrain from communicating his findings to the world. To him, his discoveries were mostly “intellectual challenges” that he would not be interested in gaining any acclaim for. Indeed, Newton had such a remarkable aversion to publishing his findings that his work on calculus would remain undivulged for thirty years. He would, literally, become the greatest mathematician in the world but only he would know it. In rare cases where he published; for instance, when asked for permission to publish one of his papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1669 by his early friend, the “mathematical intelligencer” John Collins, Newton acquiesced under the condition that his name be withheld, writing to Collins “I see not what there is desirable in public esteem were I able to acquire and maintain it. It would perhaps increase my acquaintance, the thing which I chiefly study to decline”.  

Despite his self-imposed obscurity, Newton’s extraordinary mathematical abilities were resounding across a small circle of some of Europe’s most acclaimed mathematicians. Indeed, Newton’s first mathematical tract the De Analysi which detailed his method of infinite series was already circulating among a confined group, cementing the recognition of his extraordinary genius in the English mathematical community. As a result of this, in 1669 at the age of 27, Newton succeeded Isaac Barrow to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, today regarded as one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world.

During his post as Lucasian Professor, Newton’s earlier work on light would lead him further on to a great insight which would engender his even much wider recognition across the continent. He upended the design of Galileo’s refracting telescope, building and designing the first working model of the revolutionary reflecting telescope that we know today of as the “Newtonian reflector”. The Newtonian reflector eliminated the problem of “chromatic aberration” and corrected for it completely by employing the use of a concave parabolic primary mirror serving as the objective lens, after which a secondary flat mirror, tilted 45 degrees to the primary mirror, reflects the focused light at the “Newtonian focus” to the side and towards the eyepiece.  Refracting telescope designs had attempted to counter the problem of chromatic aberration by increasing the focal length of the telescopes, a notion which made them very cumbersome to use. Indeed, Newton’s telescope was only 15-30 centimetres long but had the same magnifying power as a refracting telescope that was about a metre long. And, it eliminated completely the notion of chromatic aberration since it only functioned on the phenomenon of reflection, which does not split white light into its constituent colour. The famed Hubble Space Telescope is a giant version of the Newtonian telescope.

The first working reflecting telescope constructed by Newton in 1671 and delivered to the Royal Society. It was instrumental in bringing about Newton’s recognition into the wider sphere.
Newton's telescope, historical artwork
Newton’s sketch of his telescope.

Newton constructed the telescope all himself, including grinding and polishing the mirrors himself out of a copper-tin-arsenic alloy. Newton lent the telescope he had built to Isaac Barrow who, in 1971, presented it in London to the Royal Society, a group of learned scholars, which included prominent names such as Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. The society’s members were so impressed by the telescope that they invited Newton to demonstrate it. Newton was immediately elected a fellow. On January 2nd, 1672, Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society, wrote to Newton: “You have been so generous, as to impart to the Philosophers here, your Invention of contracting Telescopes.  It having been considered, and examined here by some of the most eminent in Opticall Science and practise, and applauded by,  they think it necessary to use some meanes to secure this Invention from Usurpation of forreiners. And therefore have taken care to represent by a scheme that first Specimen, sent hither by you, and to describe all the parts of the Instrument, together wth its effect, compared wth an ordinary, but much larger, Glasse; and to send this figure, and description by the Secretary of the R. Soc. in a solemne letter to Paris to M. Huygens, thereby to prevent the arrogation of such strangers, as may perhaps have seen it here, or even with you at Cambridge; it being too frequent that new Invention and contrivances are snatched away from their true Authors by pretended bystanders”. 

Flattered by the enthusiastic reception, Newton donated the telescope to the Royal Society and asked permission to publish a paper about the nature of light and colour. In a letter, he sent his New Theory About Light and Colours to the Royal Society. Robert Hooke however, who at the time, was regarded as England’s leading scientist in the field of optics felt quite threatened by Newton stepping onto his turf and violently opposed Newton’s ideas on light and colour, noting “I had not above three or four hours times the perusal of Mr. Newton’s paper and the writing of my answer.” Newton felt so outraged by Hooke’s ill criticisms that he threatened to withdraw from the Royal Society in 1673. After a series of debates with Hooke, Newton gave up declaring that “a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or to become a slave to defend it.” In a letter to Henry Oldenburg in 1676, Newton protested: “I see I have made myself a slave to philosophy. I will resolutely bid adieu to it eternally, except for what I do with my private satisfaction.” Newton would vow never to publish again.

Newton’s 1672 letter to the Royal Society, outlining his New Theory on Light and Colour

Indeed, acting out on his protestations, Newton did withdraw completely from the public sphere and abandoned natural philosophy for the next number of years. Instead, he would confine himself to the pursuit of alchemy and theology, purchasing two furnaces and carrying out alchemical recipes with intense devotion that he would work all day long and late into the night. His assistant, Humphrey Newton would describe Newton’s unwavering diligence: “So intent, so serious upon his Studies, that he eat very sparingly, nay, oftimes he has forget to eat at all,  so that going into his Chamber, I have found his Mess untouched, of which when I have reminded him, would reply “Have I?” then making to the Table, would eat a bit or two standing, for I cannot say, I ever saw Him sit at Table by himself. At some {seldom} Entertainments the Masters of Colledges were chiefly his Guests. He very rarely went to Bed, till 2 or 3 of the clock, sometimes not till 5 or 6, lying about 4 or 5 hours, especially at spring & ffall of the Leaf, at which Times he used to imploy about 6 weeks in his Elaboratory, the ffire scarcely going out either Night or Day, he siting up one Night, as I did another till he had finished his Chymical Experiments, in the Performances of which he was the most accurate, strict, exact. What his Aim might be, I was not able to penetrate into but his Paine, his Diligence at those sett times, made me think, he aimed at something beyond the Reach of humane Art & Industry. I cannot say, I ever saw him drink, either wine Ale or Bear, excepting Meals“.

Despite his strenuous pursuits, Newton would end up failing in alchemy in a way that he had never failed in science. It has often been commented, however, that as vacuous as Newton’s pursuits of alchemy may have been, alchemy back then was chiefly concerned with mixing metals together and coming up with alloys, early forays into the modern science of chemistry. Indeed, alchemical activities back then may have been more concerned with investigating how to restructure matter and more removed from its present devolution into the vague superstition it is now famously known for. It was not uncommon for prominent scientists of the day and members of the Royal Society (i.e. Robert Boyle) to dabble in it. And, it has indeed been commented, that Newton’s alchemical pursuits may have also aided his conceptualization of gravity, in particular, the notion of non-mechanical “vegetative active principles” which he postulated to guide the phenomenon of fermentation for instance.

It would be almost a decade before Newton would reemerge onto the scene of science and for his implacably riotous pursuits of natural philosophy to again be resuscitated, an event which most thankfully owes its occurrence to a very significant visit that the astronomer Edmund Halley intrepidly made to the reclusive Newton’s cloisters in Cambridge seeking an answer to a problem that had perplexed the best scientists of London. The likes of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren had failed, in all their endeavours, to find a proof that a planet following the inverse square law (1/R^2) would orbit in an elliptical circle. Frustrated by the lack of progress regarding this persisting conundrum, Halley visited Newton in Cambridge to ask him about this very issue. Newton quickly answered Halley’s question that a planet following inverse square gravitation would orbit in an ellipse and further astonished Halley greatly by answering that he had proved it many years ago during the time of the plague. Newton, however, had misplaced his paper but promised Halley that he would send him the proof in the intervening months. The work that Newton would then do, however, would not just stop at Halley’s one question that Newton had already solved and forgotten about many years earlier. Rather, Halley’s question would refocus Newton’s interests onto science. Newton would take on previously unanswered questions on his part and develop them further plus reinstate results that he had, due to his highly reclusive nature, refused to divulge before. Halley was, absolutely, awestruck by the correspondences that Newton would send him in the next few months and by unrestrained genius of Newton’s intellect that uncovered so many secrets of nature that only Newton had so far known, owing to his refusal to publish. Halley pleaded with Newton to publish his work, reasoning that his precedence might be threatened by other scientists who wished to publish. Halley further offered to proofread the book and fund its publication out of his own pocket. The result of Halley’s prodding would lead to Newton working on the Principia. Again, similarly to his early years, Newton would work day and night for a period 18 months that he would devote, with prodigious exclusivity, to the publication of the Principia. It is said Newton worked 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, slept 2-3 hours a day, and skipped most of his meals while writing the Principia. He communicated with almost nobody and was hardly ever seen in public.

The result of was a work of science of superhuman caliber, a masterpiece published in July 5th 1687, titled the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, surely the most influential book ever published in all of physics and arguably the most important book ever written in history. It set off the mathematization of the physical sciences in a unified comprehensive work that saw the development of modern physics and modern science. It accomplished the first great unification in physics, a unified empirically based quantitative theory of nature that bridged the laws of motion, universal gravitation, and celestial mechanics. It provided precise mathematical descriptions of the entire workings of nature. It explained the motion of planets, the causes of tides, the precession of the equinoxes, the motion of projectiles, fluid mechanics, motion in vacuums, pendulums, elasticity, the orbits of comets, the orbits of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the spherical shapes of the Sun, the planets, and the moons, the oblate shape of the Earth, the equatorial bulge of the Earth’s rotation and, in particular, how it derives from the gravitational forces of the moon, the physics of sounds and waves, plus many other natural phenomena. It explained how to calculate the mass of the Earth and the Sun and derived Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from universal gravitation. All of this was cast in the language of Euclidean geometry, making the Principia a book of extremely complex geometrical proofs that even contemporary mathematicians, well versed in Greek geometry, struggled to understand. It was thought by contemporary mathematicians that the amount of novel mathematical work and mathematical research in the Principia exceeded the combined mathematical abilities of the human race. It was unthinkable to believe that all of this could be done by a singular effort. The great 20th century Nobel physicist Subrahmanyan Chrandrasekhar, in his study of the Principia, remarked that whenever he constructed the proofs on his own and then compared them to Newton’s, he “felt like a schoolboy, admonished by his master”. 

The Principia Mathematica

Many historians judge Newton’s publication of the Principia Mathematica as the most significant moment in the development of science. Newton’s great admirer and friend, the astronomer Edmond Halley to whom we owe great thanks for prevailing upon Newton to publish, saw the publication of the Newton’s Principia as comparable to the establishment of society or the invention of writing. Indeed, not only did it revolutionise our understanding of the universe but it led to an era of reasoned thought that drew greatly from Newton’s work and contributed the scientific revolution which permeated much of the Age of Enlightenment. It is almost certain that the Principia was instrumental in the shaping of society into the ethos of rationalism, order, secularism, democracy, individualism, and the rest of the elements that define present-day Western civilization.

In 1704, after Robert Hooke’s death, Newton, who at the time would become the President of the Royal Society, would publish his second great masterpiece, The Opticks. The Opticks was a landmark of 17th century experimental science and a milestone of empirical study. It amalgamated the many years of Newton’s experimentalist wit stretching back to 1666. The inductive approach of Opticks and its focus on demonstration by “Reason and Experiment” in place of a priori conception earned it remarkable accessibility and the widespread renown that it deserved. At the very outset of the book, Newton makes it clear to the reader that “my design in this book is not to explain the properties of light by hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by reason and experiment”. It was in the Opticks that Newton communicated to the public his work on the nature of light, colour, and the laws of optics.

Newton’s Opticks published in 1704

Newton died 1727. He became the first scientist to be buried in Westminster Abbey, a place commonly reserved for kings and nobles. He was given a full state funeral. The prominent Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, exiled from France, was present in England to witness the funeral. Commenting with awe, he remarked “I have seen a professor of mathematics, simply because he was great in his vocation, buried like a king who had been good to his subjects.”

Newton’s monument at his final resting place in Westminster Abbey.

Newton’s celebrated aphorism uttered on his deathbed recognised the limits of human knowledge: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smooth pebble, or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Newton’s final resting place at Westminster Abbey.

The monumental inscription on Newton’s tomb at Westminster Abbey closes with the words: “Let mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race!”

On December 25th, let us celebrate the forgotten birthday of an individual, whose entire purpose in life was solely devoted towards the pursuit of truth. An individual who would not stop wherever that pursuit led him to, be it lores of alchemical treatises or complex mathematical works.




“Plato is my friend — Aristotle is my friend — but my greatest friend is truth.”







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