Monday Morning Math: Isaac Newton

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, 1689.jpg
Portrait of Isaac Newton by Godfrey Kneller 

Isaac Newton was born in England on December 25, 1642 (under the Julian calendar:  this corresponds to January 4, 1643 under the Gregorian calendar).  His father had died shortly before he was born, and he was raised by his grandmother after his mother remarried.  When he was 12 he returned to live with his mother, but was forced to leave school and become a farmer.

He did not like being a farmer.

Instead, he returned to school and eventually went to the university at Cambridge, returning home for a length of time only when the Plague forced the school to close.  While he was at home he developed, among other things, the theory of Calculus, although it was over 20 years (long after he returned to Cambridge) before he published this in his book Principia.

His discovery of Calculus led to some controversy:  a contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, had published the main ideas in Calculus first, but Leibniz was accused of having gotten the inspiration from unpublished works of Newton.  This was brought to the Royal Society, who concluded that Newton was first, although the fact that Newton was president of the society does call their conclusion somewhat into question.   Even today, although there is agreement both that Newton was first and that Leibniz’s notation was more useful (and still in use today!), it is unclear if the two men developed the same ideas independently or if Leibniz got key information from Newton.

Newton went on to develop many many theories of mathematics and physics (including gravity), and although some of them were alter proven wrong, his work was overall groundbreaking.  In one of his more famous quotes, he stated:

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.


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