For a man who was never married and had no known children, Isaac Newton is known as the Father of the Clockwork Universe and the Father of Modern Physics. He lived in the midst of the Scientific Revolution, perfect soil for his precise and seeking mind, with all the right foundations and nutrients for it to grow.
Newton was both brilliant and insecure, capable of great discoveries and equally extreme isolation. These qualities would define him all of his life, showing how this man who brought our knowledge to the next level was also painfully human and suffered from mental health issues all of his life.
Fact #1: Isaac Newton himself told the story of discovering gravity through the apple tree story
Among the famous people who learned about the apple tree story from Newton was Voltaire, a French philosopher and historian. (We do not precisely know what was told.) In 1726, politician and historian John Conduitt found the story in Newton’s notes as he gathered documents for a memoir.
Conduitt was married to Newton’s half-niece (the daughter of one of Newton’s half-siblings), and succeeded Isaac Newton as Master of the Mint. Because of this, he had extraordinary access to Newton’s documents and space, both professionally and personally. According to Newton, he first thought about why objects fall straight down towards the earth because he saw an apple fall from a tree.
(Also, there was only one tree in Newton’s garden, and it was an apple tree. As he often isolated himself, it is generally accepted that his garden tree was the tree in question.)
The most remarkable thing about this, personally, is that Isaac Newton wondered why the apple did not fall either upwards or sideways because he was never satisfied with the answer, “That is how it always has been.” A philosopher at heart, he always wanted to know the why behind a phenomenon.
His mind, as we will see later, was so open even to possibly spiritual phenomena that his close attention to detail helped him reconcile “invisible” events with what would eventually become breakthroughs in chemistry and physics.
(Tiny fun fact: How did Isaac Newton become Master of the Mint?)
It is not, by any account, because he was good at math. Accusations of plagiarism wore Newton down causing nervous breakdowns that severely damaged some of his relationships (some of them beyond repair). However, he was sufficiently famous enough to retain positions in Cambridge. At the same time, he felt a need to relocate to London.
Concerned friends asked Newton to find a position in London, possibly not related to the academe. At the time, political appointments were sought after because they generally had good income without a need to actually take action. He did so, through the help of rising politician friends, and was appointed Master of the Mint.
By all accounts, he did his job with zeal. He applied his attention to detail to chasing counterfeiters, and his nervous energy to sentencing them (yes, sometimes even to death). Despite the option to sit back and enjoy his position, Newton himself was not designed to do that. Instead, he seems to have enjoyed the job and done very well at it.
Fact #2: He figured out all of his planetary discoveries through mathematics
Which makes sense, because at the time, no one had even gone to the moon; and no one could have gone to the moon without his mathematics. Newton’s inquiries into gravity led him to realize that gravity caused objects to fall with constant acceleration, neither getting faster or slower.
As the earth was generally accepted to be round, Newton realized that for every object to fall straight down at the same rate of acceleration from every side of the world, there was a force inside the earth that “attracted” those objects to it. In other words, all objects were falling towards the center or core of the earth.
At the same time, as we know from our own playing with magnets, objects with enough mass attract the magnets to them instead of the other way around. In other words, every object dropped towards the earth also slightly affects the inertia, the sitting in place, of the earth. Newton began to do the math.
From a tract called “On Motion,” Newton developed a massive volume called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In other words, “natural philosophy” was the field of thought; the “mathematical principles” were observations of how natural philosophy worked.
It was in this massive book that we get the three laws of motion:
- An object at rest remains so unless force is exerted on it;
- When the object at rest is moved by a force, the movement is calculated according to the force exerted on it; and
- Every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction.
Through these laws of motion, Newton calculated that the motion of the planets around the sun depended on their distance and mass, and that the “weight” or “gravitas” of each planet was holding it in orbit against the attraction of the sun’s mass.
At the same time, he was able to explain that the moon was held into place in orbit because of the attraction of the earth to its core resisted by the attraction of the moon to its own core; in other words, its own gravitational pull. As a philosopher with a precise mind, Newton built on existing planetary knowledge with mathematical principles that modern physics built on.
Fact #3: Newton was influenced by Galileo Galilei
Rather dramatically but likely not intentionally, Galileo Galilei died in the same year that Isaac Newton was born (1642). The timing, however, is crucial.
Galileo and his refined telescope brought back the Copernican concept that the earth revolved around the sun. This got him into trouble with the Catholic Church, led to his recanting of his statements, and put him in house arrest. It significantly limited what he could release or publish as an astronomist.
Legend, another way of saying word-of-mouth-turned-fact, also says that Galileo dropped two items of differing weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, predicting that they would land at the same time. Because we know now that gravity’s acceleration rate is constant regardless of mass, we know that Galileo was right.
However, all Galileo discovered was that mass doesn’t matter to the fall; he did not know why. It would later be Newton who asked what Galileo had not (to our knowledge): why did things fall straight down instead of sideways or upwards? And why did they fall straight down regardless of their position on earth?
In this case, why was Isaac Newton able to publish heavily on the solar system just a few years (comparatively) after Galileo’s death? We know that there was an official decision to allow the teaching of heliocentrism (sun-centeredism) in 1822, but no earlier.
The answer is simple enough: Galileo was Catholic, while Isaac Newton was so Protestant he stood against even King James II’s attempts to Catholicize Cambridge, where he was part of the academic world. Science, specifically heliocentrism, split along religious lines as did many other fields at this time. Newton faced no religious, philosophical, or academic resistance to his studies.
(Some fun Galileo Galilei facts!)
Galileo was born in the same year as Shakespeare was born and as Michelangelo died (1564). (He certainly has a knack for coincidence.) At the time, Copernicus had made a case for heliocentrism, but Aristotle and Ptolemy—the scholars accepted by the Catholic Church—had different models. (Dante Alighieri, a great but controversial Catholic writer in the Middle Ages, used the Ptolemaic universe for his Divina Commedia.)
Galileo and his telescope spent countless hours observing the heavenly bodies. He observed that they rotated on an axis, and that they changed position as well in relation to the sun and the earth. Through steady observation, he observed that the earth must spin as well, and based on the planetary movements, orbit as well. The position of the sun was “fixed”—therefore, it was very likely we revolved around the sun.
Fact #4: He was a half-orphan with a “wicked stepfather”
Or maybe not so wicked, as Newton’s stepfather was a minister. However, what we know is that Newton’s father died before he was born. His mother later married a minister, who left him with his grandmother and moved away to raise another family. (Hence, the half-niece of his who would eventually marry the man who became his biographer, John Conduitt.)
Newton, the only child of his parents and not at all strong, lived—to everyone’s surprise. Two years later, his mother remarried. Barnabas Smith was a minister with some means who left Newton with his grandmother and moved to a nearby village, eventually giving Newton a half-brother and two half-sisters. Newton considered this abandonment by his mother, and this anger and sorrow would be reflected all of his life.
This state of affairs lasted for 9 years, meaning Newton was fatherless for 11 years and parentless for 9 years. We know that Newton didn’t like his stepfather, to the point of privately wishing he could burn the house down around both his mother and stepfather. Newton only moved back in with his mother when she was widowed again.
However, financially, Newton benefited greatly from his mother’s prosperity. His father had been an illiterate farmer, and it is not clear whether or not Newton’s grandmother taught Newton anything or sent him to school. After moving back in with his mother, he was sent to Grantham grammar school, which laid the academic foundations for his future career.
Fact #5: Newton was a proven nerd
Newton’s mother still considered him her eldest child, and she had inherited property from her late husband that needed managing. With this in mind, she pulled Newton from school and kept him home. (Some accounts are hazy about when this happened; others say she waited until he was around 15 or 16.)
Newton, unlike in his later life as Master of the Mint, was not at all suited to farming and did not seem to have any inclination to do well at it. In fact, because he had already had some schooling at the time, he was more likely to ignore the livestock and read a book instead. If left to farming, both the farm and Newton are likely to have suffered.
To the world’s great benefit, and to Newton and the farm’s, the Grantham school headmaster came looking for his student and reasoned with the mother to put Newton back in school. Newton returned to school, did reasonably well and was known to enjoy making mechanical models of machines.
Newton graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and continued his higher education there. He also began his career as an academic and a scholar in that college, a career that would bring him much acclaim and much suffering. His inquiring mind did not allow him to rest until the end of his life, and his discoveries changed our world forever.
Fact #6: Isaac Newton lived through two years of school closure during a plague
Newton lived through something very familiar to our post-COVID-19 world: school closure because of a plague. In 1665, the bubonic plague broke out in England. It was so terrible that it would eventually be called the Great Plague of London.
In official records, over 68,000 people died in the plague. As they recovered, however, 20% of the population, or 100,000 people, were either dead or missing. This is believed to be a more accurate number.
To prevent the spread in the school, Cambridge closed down for two years. Isaac Newton returned to his mother’s property in Woolsthorpe Manor. However, a young man with an inquiring mind and adequate schooling cannot be kept down for long—or at least, Newton could not. He most probably continued to read whatever he could get his hands on; he certainly continued to make notes of all these thoughts.
We do not know if Newton liked returning to Woolsthorpe Manor to be with his mother and half-siblings, but we do know that it was in this prolonged stay at the Manor that he observed the falling apple that sparked his interest in the pull of the earth towards falling objects.
The notes he made and his deep-dive into how the “attraction” of the earth works would lead to his greatest work on the laws of motion, and give him mathematical knowledge of the movements of the planetary bodies.
Interestingly enough, and thanks to Newton writing his thoughts down instead of school notes, we also know that Newton’s inquiries into science and math had only begun in 1664, a year before the plague. He began to review the works of accepted philosophers against later discoveries, and decided he would pursue truth above all things.
This interest in philosophy—and later on, proving philosophical truisms with mathematics—was exactly what Newton needed before he was stuck at home during the plague. His notes and thoughts were what he brought back to Cambridge when it reopened, and formed the basis of the studies and papers he would eventually write.
Fact #7: The religion-philosophy Hermeticism played a part in Isaac Newton’s discoveries
In 1678, Newton was contending with accusations of plagiarism and insinuations that his calculations were incorrect. Newton normally reacted to such statements with unrestrained rage although, as an educated man, this took the form of blistering letters and sometimes isolation. In this case, especially after his mother’s death in 1679, Newton had what we now know as a nervous breakdown and self-isolated for 6 years.
Nowadays we say “hermetically sealed” when we mean that something is airtight. The term comes from the Greek god Hermes, who could seal things so tight they could no longer be opened. In the same way, the Hermetic movement came from the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth, supposedly.
Christianity was becoming a major foundation of religion and philosophy, interacting with a number of existing and emergent ones. As it displaced certain religions and opposed others, those interested in beliefs or explanations about the universe not addressed or answered satisfactorily by the Catholic church looked to other religions and schools of thought.
Hermeticism is rather complex, being an amalgamation of different cultures, pantheons, and beliefs. However, what most drew Newton to it conceptually was the idea that there was a sort of “connection” between particles, and a disconnection between others. The explanation was religious, but Newton’s He considered these particles either “sociable” or “unsociable,” an interesting almost personalizing way of talking about them.
His work with these allowed him to see that certain particles, and certain objects, were indeed either “attracted to” or “repulsed from” one another. Furthermore, there was a pattern in what objects or particles were attracted to what, and their size mattered as well. Through patient thought and experimentation, Newton drew out universal principles that eventually were applied to the universe.