Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the greatest scientist that ever lived. More than any other person, Newton was single-handedly responsible for laying the the groundwork in classical mechanics, optics, and even mathematics. Landing man on the moon? Don't look at Einstein - it was all done with Newtonian physics.
Even though every high school student that has ever taken physics (should) remember Newton's contributions, not many know about the man behind the science. For example, did you know that Sir Isaac was an alchemist? Or that, like Einstein, he didn't have a very promising start? Or that he was obsessed with the Bible and tried to predict Armageddon?
Read on for more obscure facts about the life of Isaac Newton, the world's greatest scientist:
1. Baby Newton Wasn't Expected to Live
In 1642, the year that Galileo Galilei died, Isaac Newton was born prematurely on Christmas Day*. Named after his father, who died just three months before he was born, Isaac was a very small baby not expected to survive. His mother even said that Isaac was so small that he could have fit inside a quart mug. (Source: Isaac Newton's Early Years [wiki])
*There is controversy about this date, some said that he was born on January 4, 1643. The discrepancy is due to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar.
2. Newton Almost Became a Farmer
Newton was born into a farming family. When he was 17, his mother insisted that he returned from school to run the family farm! Thankfully, Newton was a bad farmer and not long afterwards, his uncle successfully persuaded his mother to let him attend Trinity College in Cambridge instead. (Source: Isaac Newton's Early Years [wiki])
3. Newton and His Apple: The True Story
The story (popularized by Voltaire, no less!) said that Newton was inspired when he saw a falling apple while walking around his family's garden at Woolsthorpe Manor, to formulate his theory of universal gravitation (some version even claimed the apple fell on his head!).
Newton himself actually said that he was staring out the window in his house when he saw an apple fall from a tree.
Purported offspring of the Newton's Apple Tree in Woolsthorpe Manor (Image Source: Mathematical Association of America)
Whatever happened to the tree? The King's School in Grantham, Linconshire, England, where Newton went to school, claimed to have purchased the tree and moved it to its garden. Naturally, this is a bone of contention with the Woolsthorpe Manor people who are currently in charge of the upkeep of Newton's home (now a historic site). (Source: Newton's Apple [wiki])
4. Newton was Secretive - He Rarely Published
There's no doubt that Newton was brilliant, but what is not commonly known was that the majority of Newton's discoveries were made between his twenty-first and twenty-seventh years. Yet, he didn't disclose these findings to the world until years later.
Take for example Newton's work on optics: his ground-breaking experiments on the nature of light (that ordinary white light is actually composed of a spectrum of colors) were done by 1669, when Newton was just 27 years old.Yet, he first presented his findings to the British Royal Society three years later, when he was elected as a fellow. (Source: Hart, Michael. (1998) The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History)
Newton's secretiveness had led to many quarrels over credit. For example, when mathematician Gottfried Leibniz [wiki] published his work on calculus, Newton countered that he had invented methods for that branch of math many years previously but didn't publish, thus sparking one of the largest controversy in mathematics: who truly invented calculus [wiki]?
5. Newton was Deeply Religious ...
Newton's work, particularly the laws of motion [wiki] and universal gravitation [wiki], had been used by some people to argue against the existence of God. Newton himself, however, said:
"Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."
"This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being. … This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called 'Lord God' [pantokrator], or 'Universal Ruler'. … The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect."
"Opposition to godliness is atheism in profession and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors." (Source: Isaac Newton's Religious Views [wiki])
6. ... But, He Didn't Believe in Satan or the Holy Trinity
In spite of his deep religious conviction, Newton was unorthodox when it comes to his belief of the devil, spirits and ghosts. He also assailed people who claimed to be tempted by personal demons as deluded by their own imaginations.
This might seem like a reasonable position for a man of science, but in that era, the reverse was actually true: most learned men believed in the existence of Satan, and considered Newton's view as blasphemous. (Source: Snobelen, Stephen D. (2002) Lust, Pride and Ambition: Isaac Newton and the Devil. Link)
Newton also wrote a thesis arguing against the Council of Nicaea [wiki] and the Church's doctrine on the Holy Trinity. Realizing that his position would not be accepted by the public, Newton never published this thesis in his lifetime. Indeed, it was released 27 years after his death. (Source: Isaac Newton's Religious Views [wiki])
7. Newton Was Obsessed with the Bible
Newton's note with the date 2060 as the earliest possible date of the Armageddon.
The Bible was Sir Isaac's greatest passion - he wrote more about religion than about science and mathematics! Indeed, Newton calculated the date of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ as April 3, A.D. 33 and the earliest date of the Apocalypse as 2060 A.D.
Whether you believe that Newton is right or wrong about the end of the world, consider another one of his predictions that came true: that the Jews would return to Israel.
Newton actually did more than just calculate the date of Crucifixion and the coming Apocalypse - his obsession was trying to find hidden meanings in the Bible. Indeed, Newton learned Hebrew, spent half his life, and devoted much more time to this pursuit than to science. (Source: Armageddon Online)
8. Newton was an Alchemist
Newton's alchemy notes (Image Source: R. D. Flavin)
A recently rediscovered papers of Newton revealed his secret interest in alchemy (of turning base metal into gold) and that he wrote extensively about his experiments:
Newton's alchemical studies were kept secret during his lifetime. The making of gold and silver was a felony under an act of 1404.
Newton was a creature of his time when many scholars believed in a philosopher's stone that could transmute base metal into gold. They tended to record their studies in wilfully obscure language.
"Give me leave to assert as my opinion," wrote the man who identified the wave nature of light and formulated the laws of motion, "that it is effectual in all the three kingdoms & from every species may be produced when the modus is understood: only mineralls produce minerals & sic de calmis. But the hidden secret modus is Clissus (1) Paracelsi (2) wch is nothing else but the separation of the principles thris purification & reunion in a fusible & penetrating fixity," Newton wrote. (Source: Guardian)
9. Newton Battled Counterfeiters
In 1696, Newton became a warden of the London Mint and was given the task of stopping counterfeiting, which was rampant in those days:
He gathered much of that evidence himself, disguised, while he hung out at bars and taverns. For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the branches of government, English law still had ancient and formidable customs of authority. Newton was made a justice of the peace and between June 1698 and Christmas 1699 conducted some 200 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers and suspects. Newton won his convictions and in February 1699, he had ten prisoners waiting to be executed. He later ordered all records of his interrogations to be destroyed. (Source: Wikipedia)
10. Newton the Politician Uttered Just One Sentence
Newton was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1689 and served for exactly one year. During that time, he said one and only one sentence during the lengthy proceedings: he asked a nearby usher to close an open, drafty window! (Source: Michael White (1998) Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer)