Statue of Newton in Grantham High Street
Isaac Newton is known as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. But so often history seems to have its own times and tides, which don't take too much notice of even the most celebrated of individuals. Perhaps we like to identify individuals in history because they give a human face and an understandable scale to much bigger and more confusing events. Through his own brilliance for discovery, and for self promotion, Isaac Newton became the human face of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century science. In many ways his discoveries were ready to happen, as illustrated by furious arguments with contemporaries over priority for various findings. Knowledge grows like a web, with one strand feeding into another, so that it is impossible for one strand to hang unconnected in the air. Isaac Newton in many ways did not want to be connected. He lived a life of monastic seclusion, disliked publishing his discoveries, and saw any work similar to his own as plagiarism and theft. While Newton's work showed that individual phenomena are part of a wider pattern, somehow he never applied this to himself.
Isaac Newton senior, a member of a prosperous farming family in Woolsthorpe, a tiny Lincolnshire village, died aged 36 early in October 1642. His wife Hannah who he had married five months before was carrying their baby. This baby was born on Christmas Day 1642, and named Isaac after his father. Born prematurely it was a surprise that Isaac survived. But he did survive, and became a complicating factor in his mother's remarriage in January 1646, to Barnabas Smith, rector of North Withyam, a village close to Woolsthorpe. Hannah moved to North Withyam with her new husband leaving Isaac with his maternal grandmother in Woolsthorpe. The plan was perhaps to keep Isaac at home to confirm his claim to the family's land, while keeping Smith sweet for his money. But Isaac was greatly distressed by the separation. At a local school until age 12, and then at King's School in Grantham, he was a withdrawn child. While other boys ran around and played, Isaac sat looking at sunlight and shadows, making his own sundials. He would fly kites, and perform experiments to devise the most efficient kite design. Time was also an obsession, shown in the building of a water clock which would be topped up with water every morning. Initially all this studious experimentation did not carry over into success at school. It was the desire to outshine a boy who had challenged him to a playground fight which seemed to ignite Newton's academic efforts. A ranking as second to last student in the school, was transformed into first place. This performance persuaded headmaster Henry Stokes to recommend sending Isaac to Cambridge. Hannah's plans to make her son into a gentleman farmer were overridden, and in the summer of 1661 Isaac Newton left Grantham for Trinity College Cambridge.
Newton's university career began conventionally enough. A notebook shows notes on Aristotle, the mainstay of the normal curriculum. Then there is a space of dozens of blank pages, before the following was written purposefully at the top of a fresh page: "Amicus Plato amicus Aristotles magis amica veritas," which translates as "I am a friend of Plato, I am a friend of Aristotle, but truth is my greater friend." (Quoted in Isaac Newton And His Times by Gale Christianson.) This heading was followed by a list of topics to be investigated, which included air, earth, "matter", time and eternity, "soule" and "sleepe". Obsessive work habits then developed. While the rest of Cambridge slept, Newton would be studying, or observing the stars from his makeshift observatory. Experiments involving prolonged staring into the sun to test the effect of bright light on the eye almost led to blindness. There was little or no socialising. Newton had to pay his way through Cambridge as a "sizar", so spare time was spent waiting tables, or running a money lending operation amongst fellow students. Passing a scholarship exam in 1664 made Newton a "scholar" which at least meant he could continue to study for an MA, was paid a small grant, and received meals in the college dining room. It was at this point that Catherine Storer a childhood sweetheart gave up hope on her distant boyfriend and married someone else. Newton's devotion to his career was now set. And even at this early stage a major peak in the young man's beloved career was about to occur.
In the summer of 1665 there was a major outbreak of plague in England, which forced Newton, and most of his fellow students, to leave Cambridge. The town was virtually deserted for eight months. Newton returned to Woolsthorpe, and apart from a brief period in the spring of 1666, he was not to return to Trinity until April 1667. During this period, sitting around in Woolsthorpe many of the insights occurred which were to make Newton famous. He thought about a mathematical method to enable the calculation of the position and speed of moving objects. These thoughts developed into a form of mathematics known as calculus. Much work was also done on the nature of light during these crucial months. Descartes believed that white light was exactly that, white, with colours as modifications of pure white light. Descartes' theory predicted a regular spectrum of light would be produced through a prism. A regular spectrum is actually only achievable by shining light through a prism onto a surface close to it. Newton shone a beam of light refracted through a prism all the way across one of the rooms at Woolsthorpe onto an opposite wall. This gave a spectrum of oblong bands. He then worked out that colours were all part of white light, with different wavelengths forming different colours refracted by the prism at different angles. The distance to the wall allowed the angles between the refracted colours to spread out giving an oblong effect. Most famously Newton also spent idle hours in the garden at Woolsthorpe watching ripened apples fall from a tree. Newton was thinking about spinning objects imposing centrifugal force against the inside of the containers they were spinning within. Planets are objects spinning along their orbits, but since planets do not spin against the wall of any container, there must be a powerful counteracting force preventing planets flying from their circular orbits out into space. In this way Newton began thinking about gravity. It seems he saw an apple falling in his garden, and then pictured an apple continually falling around the Earth, kept in its orbit by the conflicting influence of gravity and centrifugal force. Then another step was made to devising the inverse square law of gravity which states that the attraction of planets to the sun must decrease inversely as the squares of the distance separating them from it. Much work still had to be done to demonstrate the validity of this law, but nevertheless Newton's crucial insight came in 1666, as he sat in his garden. All this occurred in a tiny Lincolnshire village, while England suffered the effects of plague, and London's destruction in the Great Fire .
This was all very impressive, and aspects of Newton's insights were undoubtedly unique. But in all the years that followed, through long decades living a secret life at Trinity College, and then afterwards in London as Master of the Mint, battles were continually being fought with other researchers. The aim was either to deny the reality of any contribution to Newton's work, or to deny that others had reached the same conclusions independently. This was true of calculus - independently devised by Gottlieb Liebnitz in Paris - and of the reflecting telescope; Newton's design was not original, but was based on that of James Gregory's optica promota of 1663, with Newton's design actually perfected by James Hadley in 1722. It was also true of gravity - in January 1684 Edmund Halley, Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren all sat in a London inn and discussed the possibility of gravity decreasing in inverse proportion to the square of distance. It was this meeting, and a subsequent meeting with Newton in Cambridge that persuaded Newton to publish his theory of gravity in 1684. The ins and outs of Newton's battles are rather tedious and depressing to recount. Perhaps the irony of the whole sorry situation is summed up by the circumstances of Newton's first scientific publication. Though he would later be known for his famous books The Principia, published 1886 and Opiticks, published 1703 Newton's first work - an article about light and colour - was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The Philosophical Transactions was a journal. Many contributed to each edition, and each edition was widely read by the scientific community. This was in contrast to books by individual scientists which tended not to be read at all. As Gale Christianson has written journals carry "from one researcher to another the concise observations that are of common interest, affording to many the opportunity to contribute individual pieces to the larger puzzle"(Isaac Newton And His Times P153). The Philosophical Transactions as a scientific journal represented a milestone in the development of science as a modern collective enterprise. But Newton was not interested in such a development. He would invest vast amounts of energy defending what he saw as his patch. Towards the end of his life Newton as president of the Royal Society had a lot of power in the scientific world. There was a disgraceful episode where Newton used the threat of halting publication of a book by John Flamsteed of the Royal Observatory, unless Flamsteed handed over his observational data to Newton for his own purposes. Perhaps less is generally known of this aspect of Newton's life than might be expected because history tends to support the kind of effort that Newton made. Even in an age of large international research teams, we still like to think in terms of the individual. It is simpler that way, and tends to give a comforting sense of an individual's influence over history. Newton's work was always about finding a final individual solution which held disparate parts together. This was true of his scientific work, and also his more abstruse research into alchemy. In alchemy Newton thought he might find a certain pure substance which converts all imperfect material it touches into the same perfect state. Ironically, inspite of his presumptions, Newton was not in himself the individual solution holding seventeenth century science together. Science was more an interrelated sum of its parts, a journal rather than a book.
Following Newton's death in March 1727, science continued to develop as a collaborative business. And yet there still seemed to be a need to focus on an individual. Thomas Edison is known as the inventor of the light bulb, for example. He did not really invent the light bulb. Other inventors had already been using various types of glowing filament. Edison merely came up with the refinement of putting a glowing filament in a vacuum inside a clear glass container. Edison more than any other modern inventor helped develop the modern concept of a research team, and yet part of the price paid for working in one of Edison's teams was that any advance a researcher might achieve would go under the heading of an Edison advance. (See Edison: A Life Of Invention by Paul Israel.) Today we have the internet which is the latest development of the collaborative journal to which Newton originally submitted his work. But we still talk of Edison as the inventor of the light bulb, and of the seventeenth century "Newtonian Revolution" in science. History is a massive web of interrelating factors. We still need sign posts to help us make sense of it. Newton, through his undeniable brilliance, and his ruthless self promotion, became one of those sign posts.