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Scientific genius

Isaac Newton: Father of modern science.  

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night

God said, “Let Newton be” and all was light.

— Reads the epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton written by poet Alexander Pope.

He discovered the Laws of Gravity and motion and invented the Calculus.

But, Newton’s childhood did not give a clue to what was to come. He was a posthumous child, his father had died a few months before he was born. His father’s name was Isaac Newton as well. Newton senior was a farmer and could not even sign his name, according to sources. Junior was a premature baby and his mother said he could fit in a quart mug. She remarried before the boy turned three and so little Isaac was brought up by his grandmother. His stepfather died when Isaac was 10 and he moved in with the extended family of mother, grandmother and half-brothers and half-sister. Mother wanted him to take care of the estate, but Isaac was not interested. Thanks to an uncle, he was sent back to Free Grammar School to complete his education.

Isaac entered Cambridge University in 1661. Interestingly, he paid his way in college by performing a valet’s duties until he was awarded a scholarship.

Eventually, he was elected as Fellow of Trinity College and made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. During the Great Plague years when he was sent home, he wrote the famous work, Principles of Natural Philosophy which is often called just Principia. His other major work was Opticks. Professor Robert Iliffe said the term ‘scientific genius’ was invented to describe Newton.

Man of many parts

Newton’s work in mechanics was accepted right away in Britain, but universally only after about 50 or so years. From then on, it has been seen as a fantastic achievement in abstract thought. Though known as a great physicist and mathematician, Newton also plunged into chemistry, the early history of Western civilisation and theology. For instance, he investigated the form and dimensions of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as described in the Bible. Newton was first a Fellow and later president of Royal Society and was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705. Britain’s finances were in a bit of a mess in the 17th century, as one out of every 10 coins was forged.

Sir Isaac oversaw a project to recall old currency and issue a more reliable one. He came down heavily on counterfeiters. He was Master of the Mint for 30 years till his death.

The scientist-mathematician was modest. He said, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulder of giants”. He did not marry and lived modestly, but was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.

The translation of the Latin inscription on his monument reads: Mortals rejoice that there existed such and so great an ornament of the human race!

To the core

Young Isaac was sitting under an apple tree pondering over the mysteries of the universe, when boink! an apple fell to the ground. Why should the fruit always descend perpendicularly to the ground and not go sideways or upwards, but constantly to the earth's centre? In a flash Isaac realised that the very same force that brought the apple crashing to the ground also keeps the moon falling towards the earth and the earth falling toward the sun : gravity!

This story is true, but it got better with telling, by the genius himself. The anecdote has gone down in history as the second greatest Eureka moment in science, after Archimedes' discovery!

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Printable version | Nov 17, 2020 5:09:06 PM |

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