Cumberland Times-News

April 27, 2013

Sir Isaac Newton a troubled genius

Bob Doyle, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Last week’s column reviewed the youth of Isaac Newton, the founder of mechanics (force and motion) still used today in the design of most mechanical devices.

Newton was born on Christmas day, a few months after his father (Isaac Senior) had died. Three years later, Isaac’s mother Hannah remarried an older clergyman. But Isaac was not welcome so he was raised by his mother’s parents in the Newton house (Woolsthorpe).

After eight years of marriage and three more children (two girls and a boy), Newton’s stepfather died. Isaac’s mother moved back to Woolsthorpe with her three children. Indications are that the Isaac didn’t get along with his new step siblings.

Newton had been attending the King’s School, where the lessons were taught in Latin. At 17, Newton was expected by his mother to take up farming.

That proved to be a big mistake, as Newton took advantage of every opportunity to revisit his former lodging and read books owned by the apothecary, who was friends with Isaac. Woolsthorpe’s fences were not repaired; the pigs got loose and went into the corn fields.

So Hannah acceded to the wishes of her clergyman brother and let Isaac go to university. With another year of preparation, Newton was accepted at Trinity College at Cambridge University.

   The curriculum at Cambridge was based on the ancient Greek philosophers (scholasticism) with little coverage of mathematics. Newton picked up some mathematics books at the Stourbridge Fair, not far from Cambridge.

He purchased books by Decartes and Euclid, which Newton mastered by reading and rereading. Newton felt that Euclid’s Geometry was obvious and not worth studying.

When Newton was examined on Geometry by the Cambridge mathematics professor, Isaac Barrow, Newton was unimpressive. More intense study led to Newton being named a scholar and eligible for graduation the following year.

  In 1665, a ship from Europe docked in London; the cargo had rats with fleas that carried the black plague. Within weeks, the plague struck London; eventually 70,000 of the city’s inhabitants died of the plague.

Newton and many other students left Cambridge and went home. Newton had inherited a large blank book from his stepfather which he filled with his drawings and calculations.

In 18 months, Newton invented calculus, wrote out the Three Laws of Motion and realized that the gravity force between two bodies depended on the product of their masses and their distance apart squared.

In 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge and was awarded one of five fellowships at Trinity College.

  Newton’s former teacher, Isaac Barrow slowly began to realize Newton’s great discoveries, which Newton preferred to keep to himself.

A book on logarithms by Mercator revealed only one specific way of calculating logarithms using infinite series. Newton had invented a general method.

Five years after Newton nearly flunked his mathematics exam, Isaac Barrow vacated his chair in mathematics, so Newton could be appointed in his place.

  Newton was expected to give a few lectures each term. A handful of students came to Newton’s first lecture. No one attended his second lecture. This suited Newton, as he had no interest in sharing his research with others, who might claim Newton’s work as their own.

Newton continued to lecture once a term for 17 years, usually with no one in attendance. Newton’s assistant, Humphrey Newton (a distant relation) related that Newton had no diversions, not even walking about.

Newton begrudged the time that he had to spend sleeping or eating. Newton would often let his food sit on a plate, pausing to occasionally take a bite as he walked about. Newton was known to forget to change into his scholar’s gown, sometimes lecturing in his night gown.

In 1669, Newton invented a small reflecting telescope, using a concave mirror to collect and focus light. (This is the kind of telescope that is used by both amateur astronomers and the domed mountain top observatories.)

Barrow showed Newton’s telescope to the Royal Society; Newton in recognition was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

  Newton’s letter to the Royal Society about his conclusions about the nature of light and colors was greeted with strong disapproval both aboard and from his English peers.

Newton used the scientific method where every explanation must be tested by a prediction. This was alien to many scholars who sought to establish the ‘truth’ by argument and logic.

  But Newton had another concern. The requirements for being a faculty at Trinity College were raised so that all faculty must be ordained Anglican (Church of England) priests.

Newton had read extensively in theology. Newton’s focus was understanding Christ’s relation to God. Newton felt that Christ was divine, but less than God the Father. This violated the idea of the Trinity (three persons in one God) held by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

As Newton didn’t accept the Trinity (also the name of his college at Cambridge), he was a secret heretic. Newton could not truthfully sign his allegiance to the 39 articles of the Anglican church. This would cause Newton to lose his position at Cambridge.

Luckily, Isaac Barrow, now the Royal Chaplain of Cambridge, procured a dispensation from the King (Charles II) so that Newton would not have to be an ordained Anglican priest.

Newton could continue to hold his chair (professorship) at Trinity. (Newton’s story will be continued in future columns.)

SKY SIGHTS AHEAD: Early this morning, the planet Saturn was closest to the Earth at a distance of 819.5 million miles. Light reaching us from Saturn’s rings or cloud tops has taken an hour and 13 minutes to travel.

So when we see Saturn in the late evening southeastern sky, we are actually seeing the planet as it was more than an hour earlier.

Next month, the Cumberland Astronomy Club will have a public telescope session on a Saturday evening at Frostburg’s Park to view Saturn and Jupiter.

The date will be publicized in an article in the Cumberland Times-News as this date approaches.

Bob Doyle invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at rdoyle@frostburg.edu . He is available as a speaker on his column topics.