February 19, 2013

Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)

Isaac Newton was born in Woolsthorpe, England in 1642, the year Galileo died. His extraordinary mathematical ability and mechanical aptitude remained hidden from others in his school life. In 1662, he went to Cambridge for undergraduate studies. A plague epidemic in 1665 forced the university town to close and Newton had to return to his mother’s farm. There in two years of solitude, his dormant creativity blossomed in a deluge of fundamental discoveries in mathematics and physics : binomial theorem for negative and fractional exponents, the beginning of calculus, the inverse square law of gravitation, the spectrum of white light, and so on. Returning to Cambridge, he pursued his investigations in optics and devised a reflecting telescope.
In 1684, encouraged by his friend Edmund Halley, Newton embarked on writing what was to be one of the greatest scientific works ever published : The Principia Mathematica. In it, he enunciated the three laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation, which explained all the three Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. The book was packed with a host of path-breaking achievements : basic principles of fluid mechanics, mathematics of wave motion, calculation of masses of the earth, the sun and other planets, explanation of the precession of equinoxes, theory of tides, etc. In 1704, Newton brought out another masterpiece Opticks that summarized his work on light and colour.
The scientific revolution triggered by Copernicus and steered vigorously ahead by Kepler and Galileo
was brought to a grand completion by Newton. Newtonian mechanics unified terrestrial and celestial
phenomena. The same mathematical equation governed the fall of an apple to the ground and the motion of the moon around the earth. The age of reason had dawned.