Sir Isaac Newton is still thought the world’s greatest physicist and mathematician. Born on Christmas Day 1642 in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, he managed to get a place at Grantham Grammar School due to an influential relation.
He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled, spending most of his life there but for a brief period in his youth when the university was closed because of the plague. It was at this time, at home, that his great scientific breakthroughs came.
Whether an apple really fell to the ground is part of mythology, but Newton realized universal gravitation, as well as creating calculus, devising the three laws of motion and realizing that white light was made up of many colours.
It was to be many years before he published his Principia Mathematica in 1687, showing gravitation in action. He had already become a Fellow of the Royal Society and Master of the Mint, as well as a member of parliament.
Knighted in 1705, he died in 1727, remaining an enigmatic, bombastic man. One area where Newton is ignored is his detective work. Coining was threatening to destabilize the economy, and he spent two years tracking down the main culprits to be hanged.
Newton is arguably the most influential man who ever lived. He was the first to show that man’s mind could devise provable laws to understand the universe. He spurred philosophers on to do the same for society. This was the birth of the modern world.
Unfortunately, science ignores the bulk of his work. Science seems to have been a by-product of his thirst to discover the ‘spirit’ of the universe. To this end, he studied alchemy, astrology, magic and spiritual philosophies.
Most of this was done in secret, at pain of death if people realized what he really was. Keynes asked if Newton was the first great scientist or last great magician. He was the latter. He understood that the material world was not the only answer.
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