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Elizabethan England

Sir Isaac Newton

by Peter Barham, Brian Hinds,
and Bobby Noll


Although the Elizabethan Period officially ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the interest in science and the quest for scientific knowledge that characterized the Renaissance in general continued to flourish in England in the century following the Queen's death. One of the most influential and important English scientists of the seventeenth century was Sir Isaac Newton.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), English mathematician and physicist, likely one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, made many important contributions to many fields in science. His discoveries and theories laid the foundation for much of the progress in science since his time. Newton was one of the inventors of the branch of mathematics called calculus (the other was German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz). He also solved the mysteries of light optics, formulated the three laws of motion, and derived from them the law of universal gravity.

Newton was born on December 25, 1642, and died in 1727. He was born in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire. His father, a farmer, died three months before Isaac was born. Newton spent his childhood with his grandmother. In 1661, when he was 18, he went to study mathematics at Trinity College at Cambridge. Newton received his bachelor's degree in 1665, after an intermission of nearly two years to avoid the plague. Newton returned to Trinity, which elected him to a fellowship in 1667. He received his master's degree in 1668. Newton ignored much of the established curriculum of the university to pursue his own interests in math and natural philosophy, proceeding entirely on his own. Almost immediately, he made fundamental discoveries that were instrumental for his career in science.

Reflecting Telescope. Because Newton was working with light in 1668, he made the first reflecting telescope. The light was collected and reflected from a curved mirror instead of being refracted through a lens. It was far superior to the refracting telescope of that time because it reflected all the light in the same way. It did not produce color fringing or blurring, which occurred in the early refracting telescope.

Nature of Light. Newton discovered the nature of light when he darkened his room and made a small hole in his shutters to let in a convenient quantity of the sun's light. He passed this beam of sunlight through a prism. When the light came out of the prism it was not white but seven different colors: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. The spreading into rays was called dispersion by Newton; he called the different colored rays the spectrum. He learned that when the light rays were passed through a prism, rays turned back into white light. If only one ray was passed through the prism, it would come out the same color as it went in. Newton concluded that white light is made up of seven different colored rays. The rays were dispersed through the prism because the rays were reflected at different angles.

The Fluxional Method. Newton generalized the methods that were being used to draw tangents to curves and to calculate the area swept by curves. When he was working on this, he recognized that the two procedures were inverse operations. By joining them in what he called the Fluxional Method, Newton developed in the autumn of 1666 a kind of math that is now known as calculus. Calculus was a new and powerful method that carried modern math. Although Newton was the inventor, he did not introduce calculus into European mathematics. In 1675 Leibniz arrived at the same method, which he called differential calculus. Leibniz proceeded to publish his method and received sole credit for its invention until Newton published a detailed exposition of his fluxional method in 1704.

Motion and Gravity In 1670 Newton worked more on chemistry and alchemy than on optics and mathematics. Newton said the concept of a universal force came to him while he was alone in the country.He had been forced to flee there because of the outbreak of plague in Cambridge. During this time, Newton suddenly realized that a single force pulls an object to earth and keeps the moon in its orbit. He found that the force of universal gravitation makes every pair of bodies in the universe attract each other. The force depends on the amount of matter in the bodies being attracted and the distance between the bodies. The force by which the earth attracts or pulls a large rock is greater than the pull on a small pebble because the rock contains more matter. The earth's pull is called the weight of the body.

With this theory, Newton explained why a rock weighs more than a pebble. He also proved that many types of motion are due to one kind of force. He showed that the gravitational force of the sun keeps the planets in their orbits, just as the gravitational force of the earth attracts the moon. The falling of objects on earth seems different from the motion of the moon because the objects fall straight down to earth, while the moon moves approximately in a circle around the earth. Newton showed that the moon falls just like an object on earth. If the moon did not fall constantly toward the earth, it would move in a straight line and fly off at a tangent to its orbit. Newton calculated how much the moon falls in each second and found the distance to be 1/3600 of the distance an object on earth falls in a second. The moon is 60 times further from the earth's center than such an object. Consequently, the force of the earth on an object 60 times as far away as another object is 1/3600.

In conclusion to his work on motion and gravitation, Newton came up with the three laws of motion. The first states: A body continues in a state of rest or moves with a steady velocity in a straight line if it's not acted upon by forces. His second states: When a force acts on a body it produces an acceleration which is proportional to the magnitude of the force. Newton's third law of motion states: If body A exerts a force on body B, body B always exerts an equal and opposite force on body A.

Tides. Newton was the first person to give an explanation of the tides. He said that the earth attracts the moon, but the moon also pulls at the earth; therefore, they stay together. Because the moon is pulling at the earth, it causes the oceans to bulge under it. This produces tides. The sun also pulls at the earth, but its tides are weaker than those of the moon. From this, Newton explained why the tides were bigger when the moon and sun are in line with each other: this occurs because they pull together. These are called spring tides. The lowest tides, neap tides, are when the moon and sun pull at right angles.

Comets. Newton showed that comets were objects acted upon by the same forces as the planets. Edmund Halley used Newton's theory to link the comet he saw in 1682 and the comets which had been reportedly seen in 1537 and 1607. From this, Halley predicted that the next comet should appear in 1758, 76 years later. Edmund Halley's prediction was proved correct.

The Books Newton Wrote. Newton's most famous book was called Philosphe Naturalis Principia Mathematica. It was published in 1678 and was known as Principia. The book contains all his laws of motion and theories of tides and gravitation. He also wrote another book, Optiks, which was published in 1704, which describes the fluxional method and other mathematics. It also describes all his work on the nature of light.

Newton's Later Years. Newton was knighted in 1705 by Queen Anne. He became the first knighted scientist. He died in 1727, at the age of 85, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The spark for science that was started during the Elizabethan period continued to grows to enlightenment over the next centuries due to the work of such visionaries as Sir Isaac Newton.


Works Consulted

Christianson, Gale E. In the Presence of the Creator: Isaac Newton and HisTimes. London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1984.

This book gives a great overview of the works of Isaac Newton. We found a lot of information about Newton's work on the nature of light. The chapters entitled "A Movable Feast" and "A Kinde of Nothinge" are very informative.

Manuel, Frank E. A Portrait of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968.

In this book we found important information about Newton's work on the Fluxional method. We also found a lot of information on Gottfried Leibniz. We thought that the chapter entitled "The Duel With Leibniz" was especially informative.

*McTavish, Douglas. Isaac Newton. New York: The Bookwright Press, 1990.

This book discusses all the works of Isaac Newton. We found a lot of information on the early life of Newton. We also found some pictures that we used in our report. The chapters "Early life" and "Aristotle and the New Science" were very helpful.

"Newton, Sir Isaac." The World Book Encyclopedia. 1995 ed.

This section gives the theories that Newton developed on motion and gravitation.It also tells how he proved that many types of motion can be due to one kind of force. The article briefly explains the universe and how gravitational force from the earth attracts the moon.

*North, T.D. Isaac Newton. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

This book was very helpful in our research. We found very important information on Newton and his study of gravitation. We also found some illustrations that we used in our report. The chapter entitled "Gravitation" is very informative.

Westfall, Richard. Never at Rest : A Biography of Isaac Newton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

In this book we found a lot of information on Newton's work on comets.We also found information on the books that Newton wrote. The chapters "Principia" and "Revolution" are very informative.

*Source for visuals

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