Isaac Newton

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Isaac Newton, age 46, ca. 1689, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Isaac Newton, age 46, ca. 1689,
portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller

Isaac Newton was not a pleasant man. His relations with other academics were notorious, with most of his later life spent embroiled in heated disputes. Following publication of Principia Mathematica - surely the most influential book ever written in Physics - Newton had risen rapidly into public prominence. He was appointed president of the Royal Society and became the first scientist ever to be knighted.

Newton soon clashed with the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, who had earlier provided Newton with much needed data for Principia, but was now withholding information that Newton wanted. Newton would not take no for an answer; he had himself appointed to the governing body of the Royal Observatory and then tried to force immediate publication of the data. Eventually he arranged for Flamsteed's work to be seized and prepared for publication by Flamsteed's mortal enemy, Edmond Halley. But Flamsteed took the case to court and, in the nick of time, won a court order preventing distribution of the stolen work. Newton was incensed and sought his revenge by systematically deleting all references to Flamsteed in later editions of Principia.

A more serious dispute arose with the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Both Leibniz and Newton had independently developed a branch of mathematics called Calculus, which underlies most of modern physics. Although we now know that Newton discovered Calculus years before Leibniz, he published his work much later. A major row ensued over who had been first, with scientists vigorously defending both contenders. It is remarkable, however, that most of the articles appearing in defense of Newton were originally written by his own hand - and only published in the name of friends! As the row grew, Leibniz made the mistake of appealing to the Royal Society to resolve the dispute. Newton, as president, appointed an "impartial" committee to investigate, coincidentally consisting entirely of Newton's friends! But that was not all: Newton then wrote the committee's report himself and had the Royal Society publish it, officially accusing Leibniz of plagiarism. Still unsatisfied, he then wrote an anonymous review of the report in the Royal Society's own periodical. Following the death of Leibniz, Newton is reported to have declared that he had taken great satisfaction in "breaking Leibniz' heart".

During the period of these two disputes, Newton had already left Cambridge and academe. He had been active in anti-Catholic politics at Cambridge, and later in Parliament, and was rewarded eventually with the lucrative post of Warden of the Royal Mint. Here he used his talents for deviousness and vitriol in a more socially acceptable way, successfully conducting a major campaign against counterfeiting, even sending several men to their death on the gallows.

LaTeX: -Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time

(p.9) When Isaac was three years old and his widowed mother near thirty, she accepted a marriage offer from another nearby rector, Barnabas Smith, a wealthy man twice her age. Smith wanted a wife, not a stepson; under the negotiated terms of their marriage, Hannah Ayscough abandoned Isaac in the Woolsthorpe house, leaving him to his grandmother's care.

(p.11) When Isaac was old enough, he walked to the village dame school, where he learned to read and studied the Bible and chanted arithmetic tables. He was small for his age, lonely and abandoned. Sometimes he wished his stepfather dead, and his mother, too: in a rage he threatened to burn their house down over them. Sometimes he wished himself dead and knew the wish to be a sin.

(p.13) When Isaac was ten, in 1653, Barnabas Smith died, and Hannah returned to Woolsthorpe, bringing three new children with her. She sent Isaac off to school, eight miles up the Great North Road, to Grantham, a market town of a few hundred families - now a garrison town, too. Grantham had two inns, a church, a guild hall, an apothecary, and two mills for grinding corn and malt. Eight miles was too far to walk each day; Isaac boarded with the apothecary, William Clarke, on High Street. The boy slept in the garret and left signs of his presence, carving his name into the boards and drawing in charcoal on the walls: birds and beasts, men and ships, and pure abstract circles and triangles.

(p.195) When he was twenty, a student at Trinity College, he suffered a sort of crisis of conscience around Whitsunday and wrote down - in a private shorthand - a catalogue of his sins. Among the early sins he included "Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them" and "Wishing death and hoping it to some." He also recalled "peevishness" with his mother and half-sister, striking his sister and others, "having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese," and many episodes of lying and violating the Sabbath ("Thy Day").

LaTeX: -James Gleick, Isaac Newton

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