Isaac Newton, who figures in this article about Real Men
of Genius, was probably the most influential scientist of all time.
He was knighted in 1705, elected President of the Royal Society, became a Member of Parliament and was given lucrative offices as Master and Warden of the Royal Mint.
Sir Isaac, you were born in Lincolnshire in 1642 but your father predeceased you, as I understand it?
I was told he died three months before I was born. As a tiny child, it is said that I could fit into a two-pint pot. When I was three years old my mother married Barnabas Smith, a priest who thoroughly disliked me.
So what happened?
I was sent to live with my grandmother. Smith died when I was 17 years old and my mother withdrew me from school to work on the farm. That bored me silly. I remember building the model of a waterwheel one day.
I didn’t see the sheep disappear and then there was trouble when they were found damaging other people’s land. It really wasn’t for me. There was another occasion when I walked a horse home.
I must have been lost in my thoughts because somehow it slipped its bridle and I didn’t see it go, and I walked home with just the bridle in my hands. Fortunately, at this stage my mother relented and I was able to go back to school.
When did you go up to Cambridge?
I went up to Trinity College in 1661 where I spent much time reading Descartes, Copernicus and Galileo, but the University had to close in 1665 as a precaution against the Great Plage, shortly after I obtained my degree.
From there I returned to Lincolnshire and spent the next eighteen months working entirely alone.
You went on to discover the law of gravity amongst many other things. Tell us about the apple that fell upon your head?
No apple fell upon my head, but seeing an apple falling
from a tree whilst walking in my garden set me thinking.
I wondered why it should fall perpendicularly to the ground and not travel sideways or upwards.
You formulated the theories of colour and calculus, and your discoveries in mechanics, mathematics, thermodynamics, astronomy, optics and acoustics place you not only at the forefront, but way ahead, of any other scientist.
Would you explain a little about your dispute with the German philosopher, Gotfried Leibniz.
By my early twenties I had three big breakthroughs: the way in which light decomposed into the colours of the spectrum, the calculus and the theory of gravitation that fitted Galileo’s conclusions.
Mathematicians until then believed that the world was static whereas I knew it was in constant motion. Leibnitz claimed priority with his theory of calculus, but I think people generally accept now that we reached our conclusions independently using different notations.
In order to avoid controversy, I was reluctant to publish the calculus. To cut a long story short, the Royal Society pitched in because it felt that Leibnitz had plagiarised my work. It was, sadly, a bitter dispute, and did nothing to help either of us.
You became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1669 and, in 1672, were elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and later became its president. When were your major works published?
My central theories of gravitation were published in On Motion in 1684, but the bulk of my work was published in Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (known in shorthand as Principia) in 1687.
I understand that by 1789 it had appeared in 40 English editions, 17 French and 11 in Latin.
Would it be correct to say that you were, at least to some extent, obsessed with your work?
I was certainly deeply interested in it and it is, I believe, natural that one looks deeply inside oneself at these times. There are times when I forgot to eat or did so standing at my desk.
On other occasions, when I became deeply involved, I worked in my laboratory for weeks at a time. If one is unique, then one is bound to have personality traits which also may be unique or not instantly recognisable to others.
Your investigations into the effect of glass and sunbeams creating rainbows eventually led to the telescope?
My work into the refraction of light demonstrated that a prism could decompose white light. The result would be a spectrum of colour. A lens and a second prism was able to recompose the multi-coloured spectrum into white light.
The interaction of objects with already-coloured light results in colour. The objects do not generate the colour themselves.
Queen Anne knighted you in 1705?
That was during a Royal visit to Trinity College. I was the first natural philosopher to be knighted, although sceptics believe my knighthood had more to do with my recent election as a member of parliament than the recognition of my scientific work.
Could you say a word or two about your position at the Royal Mint?
I accepted the post of Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. I took the position seriously and reformed the currency in order to support the British economy. I tracked down counterfeiters and saw to it that they were hung, drawn and quartered.
Didn’t you also dabble in alchemy?
That is a slightly touchy subject because alchemy was more than frowned upon in those days. One could be hanged for it. I had a naturally curious mind and felt it necessary to delve into the mysteries of alchemy and religion.
I had to work in a secret way in an attempt to unravel biblical prophecies. I left many notes hidden away. My belief was that there was a mystical god that governed the universe.
You died a bachelor in 1727?
I died in my sleep, and it is true that I never knew a woman.
Keep your eyes open for more Real Men of Genius as they are added to this site and also look at Real Women of Genius for further examples.
Read Modelling Genius and remember also to see where you can identify the talents of these people within yourself. You will have them all. You may just need to search a little:
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