English physicist and mathematician who laid the foundations of physics as a modern discipline. During 166566, he discovered the binomial theorem, differential and integral calculus, and that white light is composed of many colours. He developed the three standard laws of motion (see Newton’s laws of motion) and the universal law of gravitation, set out in Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica 1687 (usually referred to as the Principia). Knighted 1705.
Newton’s greatest achievement was to demonstrate that scientific principles are of universal application. He clearly defined the nature of mass, weight, force, inertia, and acceleration.
In 1679 Newton calculated the Moon’s motion on the basis of his theory of gravity and also found that his theory explained the laws of planetary motion that had been derived by German astronomer Johannes Kepler on the basis of observations of the planets.
Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and studied at Cambridge, where he became professor at the age of 26. He resisted James II’s attacks on the liberties of the universities, and sat in the parliaments of 1689 and 170102 as a Whig. Appointed warden of the Royal Mint in 1696, and master in 1699, he carried through a reform of the coinage. Most of the last 30 years of his life were taken up by studies of theology and chronology, and experiments in alchemy.
Newton and German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz worked independently on the development of a differential calculus, both making significant advances, but Newton claimed to be its sole inventor. When Leibniz appealed to the Royal Society for a fair hearing, Newton appointed a committee of his own supporters and even wrote their report himself. The result of this controversy was to isolate English mathematics and to set it back many years, for it was Leibniz’s terminology that came to be used. A similar dispute arose between Newton and English scientist Robert Hooke, who claimed prior discovery of the inverse square law of gravitation.
Newton began to investigate the phenomenon of gravitation in 1665, inspired, legend has it, by seeing an apple fall from a tree. But he was also active in algebra and number theory, classical and analytical geometry, computation, approximation, and even probability.
A by-product of his experiments with light and prisms was the development of the reflecting telescope. Newton investigated many other optical phenomena, including thin film interference effects, one of which, ‘Newton’s rings’, is named after him.
De motu corporum in gyrum/On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit was written in 1684. The publication of the Principia was financed by his friend Edmond Halley. In 1704, Newton summed up his life’s work on light in Opticks.