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Happy Birthday, Isaac

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.—Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, by Sir David Brewster (1855, Vol. 2, Ch. 27)

Portrait of Isaac Newton, from Scientific Identity: Portraits from the Dibner Library
of the History of Science and Technology
, 2003.

Isaac Newton, beachcomber extraordinaire, was born on this day in 1643.

That was 100 years after Copernicus's death and the year after the death of Galileo and of his own father. His mother, who had been largely absent in his early years, tried to steer him toward a career in farming, but he resisted, and his headmaster convinced her to allow little Isaac to pursue an education.

Eventually Isaac attended Trinity College, Cambridge where students were expected to become good Aristotelians, but he had his own reading plans—he wanted to delve into edgier stuff, such as the writings of Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Descartes.

When he was made a fellow of Trinity College, and later, appointed Lucasian Professor, tradition demanded that he become an ordained priest, something he did not want to do—he was a maverick about religious doctrines too. Again, he managed to do things his way: he found legal loopholes; he even got King Charles II to grant him an exemption.

He kept a list of his own sins which he addressed to God. It includes trespasses such as: "Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times," "Squirting water on Thy day," "Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter," as well as others (such as "Striking many") that substantiated reports he could be subject to fits of rage—though he also showed great affability and generosity.

Newton invented/discovered the differential and integral calculus, presumably much earlier than Leibniz who also got there on his own. But Newton, being a perfectionist, remained reluctant to share his findings for decades, thus triggering conflicting claims of priority. (By the way, the calculus notations we use now are generally not Newton's but Leibniz's, which are more efficient for most applications.)

And various other areas of mathematics, as well as optics and astronomy, are in Newton's debt. Perhaps his most profound contribution to knowledge was the realization that the motion of apples and planets—indeed, of all objects in the universe—can be described by the same equations.

He first publicized some of his findings on the physics of motion and gravity in a brief communication in 1684. This was followed by his 3-volume Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, which he completed and made available for publication after much exhorting and cajoling from Edmund Halley. It was first published on July 5, 1687. This remains one of the most important scientific books of all time. You can find the book at the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology in the original Latin.

Sir Isaac Newton's own first edition copy of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with
his handwritten corrections for the second edition. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2004.—Wikipedia

But Newton the perfectionist had been pressured to publish this work when he did not feel ready yet. So, over the years, he made several changes, and the final revision came out in 1726, the year before his death. The Dibner has that edition as well.

If you feel like curling up with an e-book classic, you can read the original full text and the 1846 first American edition.

His life and works and his influence on the growth of knowledge continue to enthrall and surprise. To learn more, here are some great resources found by searching for library and archival exhibitions on the web about Isaac Newton:

Footprints of the Lion: Isaac Newton at Work, from Cambridge University Library

Newton's Secrets, from the Jewish National and University Library

The Newtonian Moment: Science and the Making of Modern Culture, from the New York Public Library (in cooperation with Cambridge University Library).


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