Sir Isaac Newton is among the most acclaimed figures in history. He is credited for a multitude of crucial scientific developments, but few people know about his eccentric character and the strange projects he pursued outside of his scientific work.
Most of us probably first heard of Newton through the story of an apple hitting him on the head, an event that allegedly led to his discovery of gravity. As it turns out, the most memorable part of the story probably isn’t true. According to a 1752 biography, Newton was “under the shade of some apple trees”, when “the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, he thought to himself”. In this early account, there is no mention of an apple hitting Newton directly on the head. What isn’t disputed is the fact that Newton was first to suggest the theory of universal gravitation: the mass of the Earth attracts the apple, and the mass of the apple attracts the Earth, although to a far lesser degree. Aside from his work in gravitation, Newton is also responsible for his three laws of motion, upon which all of classical mechanics is built. Some of his ‘smaller’ accomplishments include theories in color, refraction, and interference, which laid the foundation for modern physical optics.
Newton was just as much an antisocial oddball as he was a scientific genius. He was “prickly to the point of paranoia” and pursued many pseudoscientific projects such as alchemy or plainly weird experiments. One time, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye socket “betwixt [his] eye and the bone as near to the backside of [his] eye as [he] could” purely out of curiosity. He was also deeply involved in a religious sect called Arianism and spent hours at a time scouring the floor plan of the lost Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem for mathematical clues about Christ’s second coming. When his alma mater Cambridge University attempted to re-Catholicize, Newton got involved in politics only to block this change and ended up as a Member of Parliament. Though he succeeded in preventing Cambridge’s re-Catholicization, the rest of his political impact appears almost nonexistent; his only appearance on record is asking for a window to be closed.
Even within his scientific pursuits, Newton was incredibly reclusive. Much of his work required a robust mathematical principle to describe rates of change, so Newton casually invented calculus as a personal system for his work. Newton didn’t see the value in sharing his new method and told no one about it for twenty-seven years. In the late 1600s, a posse of scientists consisting of Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and Edmond Halley placed bets on who could mathematically describe the orbit of celestial bodies. A year later, after none of the three men could come up with anything, a distraught Halley consulted his friend Newton. According to an account from one of Newton’s confidants, “Sir Isaac replied immediately that it would be an ellipse. [Halley], struck with joy and amazement, asked him how he knew the answer. ‘Why’ saith [Newton] , ‘I have calculated it,’ whereupon Doctor Halley asked him for his calculation without farther delay, Sir Isaac looked among his papers but could not find it”. This situation is like someone saying he had found the cure to cancer but told no one and then lost his work.
Halley pressured Newton to recalculate Newton’s theory and publish it. Newton agreed and came back a couple years later with Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Those three books laid out his theories of motion and gravitation, and is now considered his magnum opus and the most important book in physics. It is striking to think that if it weren’t for a handful of friends who recognized Newton’s brilliance, Newton’s work may have disappeared along with him.
Justin Yau is a sophomore in Hanszen College at Rice University.
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5. No author. Isaac Newton: The man who discovered gravity. http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zwwgcdm (accessed 02/18/16), part of the BBC.