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Isaac Newton

Big Thinkers

When his university is closed due to an outbreak of the plague, a young man retreats to his childhood home in Lincolnshire to consider the laws of gravity. Observing apples falling to the ground he is struck by (not an apple) an epiphany!

Isaac Newton is one of the most influential scientists of all time and was particularly interested in how the universe worked. Born in 1643 and studying at Cambridge University, Newton followed the work of Galileo and studied the relationship between the sun and the planets revolving around it. However, Newton’s interests were not limited to this and he also focused on mathematics, physics, optics and astronomy.

After returning home during the 2 year period when his university was closed as a precaution against the Great Plague, Newton focused on the laws of gravity, finding inspiration from the famous apple tree and developing his 3 laws. Newton’s Laws explain the way that objects move and the reasons why an apple falls to the ground and not into the sky. They were outlined in the book he later published; Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy – often referred to as simply the Principia.

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When Newton’s university was closed he was given an opportunity to rest, but the desire for greater knowledge and to uncover further truths empowered him to continue working, even when he was simply resting under an apple tree. This shows that the creative thinker’s mind is always active, even when others might be resting.

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The apple tree tale is now a well known story of the discovery of gravity, but in reality Newton’s understanding of the principle involved much more than a simple apple falling to the ground. He studied the work of previous scientists and developed his own understanding until he had outlined the 3 laws. Newton acknowledged his predecessors with the (now) famous quote:

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Factoids

  • Although there is evidence that a falling apple inspired Newton, there is no proof that the apple actually hit him on the head.
  • Newton’s universal law of gravitation was considered to be the best explanation until Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
  • Newton had a rather sinister looking family coat of arms.
  • Newton’s grave in Westminster Abbey provides a clue in The Da Vinci Code.
  • As an alternative to Christmas, some have chosen to celebrate December 25 as Newtonmas, sending cards with “Reasons Greetings!” printed inside.

Image credit: “Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi 2003-03-10” by John McCullough – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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