Isaac Newton: The Man Behind Gravity

The Life of One of the Most Influential Mathematicians in History


Pragnya Keerthivasan, Journalist/Editor

Isaac Newton was born on January 4, 1643. His mother was a widow as his father died three months before Newton was born. After his mother remarried, Newton spent most of his time with his maternal grandmother. His education was interrupted when his mother and stepfather wanted him to become a farmer. Their attempt failed, and he returned to King’s School before attending the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College in 1661.

He became fascinated with the works of modern philosophers like René Descartes, devoting notes to his outside readings called “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (Certain Philosophical Questions). In 1665, the Great Plague hit, closing down the university. Back to his farm, Isaac Newton started formulating theories in light, colors, and his famous works in gravity. Finally, in 1671, the Great Plague pandemic ended, and Isaac Newton returned to college. In the following two years, he constructed the first reflecting telescope, and obtained his Master of Arts, becoming the second Cambridge’s Lucasian’s Professor of Mathematics in the university’s history.

In 1671, Isaac Newton was asked to present his telescope to the Royal Society of London, and joined the membership of the Royal Society in the following year, publishing his notes on optics, the branch of physics that studies the behavior and properties of light, to his peers. After observing and experimenting with the refractions of light, Newton had found out two more discoveries! White light is made out of all the colors of the spectrum, and light isn’t in the form of waves, but particles. 

There was also rivalry between the leader of The Royal Society, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton. Newton’s methods and discovery notes drew sharp criticism from Hooke. Utterly sick and frustrated with Hooke’s disagreement on his methods, Isaac Newton came to a heated conversation with him to defend his discoveries. In the end, Newton fell into a nervous breakdown and hid from the public eye in 1678.

The years after, he returned to his early studies on the forces governing gravity and became great in alchemy as he trapped himself away from the world until in 1684, Edmund Halley came to visit the secluded Newton. Halley learned that Newton had mathematically found out the elliptical orbit of celestial bodies. Astonished, Halley urged him to organize his notes and publish them, resulting in a 1687 publication of “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which brought up the three laws of universal gravity we all are familiar with. 1) Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it. 2) Force equals mass times acceleration: F=MA. 3) For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

Newton, now back to the world, got propelled into intellectual circles. Acknowledged for all his scientific feats, Isaac Newton was acclaimed as one of the most important works of modern science and a foundational part of the European Enlightenment. The death of Robert Hooke in 1703 had allowed Newton to rank up to the Head of the Royal Society of London, and the following year, published another major work called, “Opticks”. The book detailed Newton’s experiments with refraction and the color spectrum, closing with his deep thoughts on such matters as energy and electricity.

Since he never married, Newton spent his later years living with his niece at Cranbury Park near Winchester, England, and on March 31, 1727, Isaac Newton died in his sleep at age 84.

The life of Isaac Newton was indeed full of discoveries. He discovered many light theories and wrote many books and method articles still popular today. He was a fantastic mathematician who helped shape our rational worldview. After all, he was the father of gravity! He is also widely recognized as one of the greatest physicians and most influential scientists of all time. So next time you learn about physics or any light concepts, think of Isaac Newton, the man behind gravity!