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Early Life

On January 4, 1643, Isaac Newton was born in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. He was the only son of a prosperous local farmer, also named Isaac Newton, who died three months before he was born. A premature baby born tiny and weak, Newton was not expected to survive.

When he was 3 years old, his mother, Hannah Ayscough Newton, remarried a well-to-do minister, Barnabas Smith, and went to live with him, leaving young Newton with his maternal grandmother.

At age 12, Newton was reunited with his mother after her second husband died. She brought along her three small children from her second marriage. Newton had been enrolled at the King’s School in Grantham, a town in Lincolnshire, where he lodged with a local apothecary and was introduced to the fascinating world of chemistry.

His mother pulled him out of school, for her plan was to make him a farmer and have him tend the farm. Newton failed miserably, as he found farming monotonous.

When he was sixteen he was greatly interested in finding the proper form of a body which would offer the least resistance when moving in a fluid. In a severe storm, to test the force of the gale, he jumped first in the direction in which the wind blew, and then in opposition to the wind, and after measuring the length of the leap in both directions, and comparing it with the length to which he could jump in a perfectly calm day, he was enabled to compute the force of the storm.

It is probable that the time spent at Grantham was a happy time…

…for young Newton there met and, it is said, loved Miss Storey, sister of Dr. Storey, a physician near Colsterworth, and daughter of the apothecary’s second wife. She was two or three years younger than Newton, a girl of attractive face and unusual talents. As his income as a Fellow was small, after leaving college, they did not marry, though his interest in her continued unabated through life. Though she was twice married, he never paid a visit to Woolsthorpe without going to see her, and liberally relieved her from little pecuniary embarrassments, when his own circumstances had become easy. How the world loves constancy; an affection which knows no change! That he would have been happier in those quiet years of study, even in his poverty, had he married, is probable; but that the world gained by his undivided devotion to science, is equally probable. (Source: from book in ref.) He soon was sent back to King’s School to finish his basic education. Perhaps sensing the young man’s innate intellectual abilities, his uncle, a graduate of the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College, persuaded Newton’s mother to have him enter the university. Newton enrolled in a program similar to a work-study in 1661, and subsequently waited on tables and took care of wealthier students’ rooms. When Newton arrived at Cambridge, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century was already in full force.

The heliocentric view of the universe…

…theorized by astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, and later refined by Galileo—was well known in most European academic circles. Philosopher René Descartes had begun to formulate a new concept of nature as an intricate, impersonal and inert machine. Yet, like most universities in Europe, Cambridge was steeped in Aristotelian philosophy and a view of nature resting on a geocentric view of the universe, dealing with nature in qualitative rather than quantitative terms. During his first three years at Cambridge, Newton was taught the standard curriculum but was fascinated with the more advanced science. All his spare time was spent reading from the modern philosophers. The result was a less-than-stellar performance, but one that is understandable, given his dual course of study. It was during this time that Newton kept a second set of notes, entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions”). The “Quaestiones” reveal that Newton had discovered the new concept of nature that provided the framework for the Scientific Revolution.

Though Newton graduated without honors or distinctions…

…his efforts won him the title of scholar and four years of financial support for future education. Unfortunately, in 1665, the Great Plague that was ravaging Europe had come to Cambridge, forcing the university to close. Newton returned home to pursue his private study. It was during this 18-month hiatus that he conceived the method of infinitesimal calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and color, and gained significant insight into the laws of planetary motion—insights that eventually led to the publication of his Principia in 1687. Legend has it that, at this time, Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. When the threat of plague subsided in 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge and was elected a minor fellow at Trinity College, as he was still not considered a standout scholar. However, in the ensuing years, his fortune improved. Newton received his Master of Arts degree in 1669, before he was 27.

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