The Life of Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was born in the early hours of Christmas Day, under the sign of a comet and in the same year--1642--that Galileo died. His father had died three months earlier, and when his mother remarried, moved away and left young Isaac to the care of his grandparents in Woolsthorpe, Newton was stricken with profound feelings of abandonment that forever influenced his ability to trust and deal comfortably with other people.

As a young boy, shy and introspective, he preferred to be alone, sketching and tinkering with inventions; at age 12, he made a perfect working model of a famous windmill near his school. Water clocks, sundials and kites fascinated him, and he demonstrated a precocious aptitude at mathematics. At age 18, he was accepted at Cambridge University where he was to spend most of the next 40 years, first as a student, then as a professor. But for all his genius and productivity, Newton was notoriously publicity shy - disinclined to publish his theories lest they attract discussion or criticism that would require him to engage in public debate. When the Great Plague broke out in 1666, he retreated to the less populated haven of his hometown, Woolsthorpe, and, fittingly, enjoyed the most intensely productive period of his life. (He later called it his "miraculous year.") His fundamental obsession was his certainty that celestial motion--indeed, all motion--was governed by mechanical laws, not mysteriously heavenly forces, and it was his determination to prove this theory that led to his many discoveries.

After the plague subsided, Newton returned to Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1671, finally consented to have his first work published. As he expected, he was soon drawn into the orbit of the Royal Society, a hotbed of scientific thought, and as he had equally feared, rampant egos. Whereas Samuel Pepys, (an early Society president), had been a strong supporter, Robert Hooke, the Society's secretary, proved to be something of a nemesis - going so far as to accuse Newton of plagiarising Hooke's work. Conversely, his relationship with astronomer Edmond Halley was an extremely positive one; Halley encouraged him to publish The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy ("The Principia"), which some say remains the most influential scientific book ever written. Today, most every schoolchild knows the significance of the Newton-and-the-apple story: that Newton went on to articulate the law of gravity and then the three laws of motion. Less widely appreciated are his other contributions to understanding our universe--that he invented differential and integral calculus, made the first reflecting telescope, and discovered laws of optics, fluid mechanics and cooling.

In the early 1690s, Newton suffered what would now be called a nervous breakdown. His considerable fame by then was a mixed blessing, representing long-overdue recognition of his genius at the same time as imposing on him responsibilities that must have been onerous for someone so emotionally insecure. Still, he rose to the challenges and opportunities that presented themselves: successfully running for Parliament, becoming Master of the Royal Mint (for which he was knighted) and eventually assuming the presidency of the Royal Society. Unfortunately, the intellectual backstabbing of his peers, including the unresolved charges of plagiarism, dogged him to the end.

In 1727, after a lifetime of generally good health, he suffered a brutally painful case of gallstones, which led to fatal complications. In light of his remarkable contribution to human understanding, Newton was buried in Westminster Abbey.