Apr 12, 2022

Newton and his Contribution to Science

Part 1

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The strength of science lies in the relationships that exists even in seemingly contradictory phenomena. Think of the upward and later downward movement of a ball when we throw it up in the air as well as the movement of the planets.

It is quite amazing that a set of mathematical laws formulated by Isaac Newton can be used to predict the motion of objects anywhere in the universe. Newton’s role in the advancement of scientific understanding is immense. Newton looked at the universe differently.

Before we talk about Newton, let us briefly review the history of science before his time. There was no such thing as science 5,000 years ago. The ancient people made their predictions using repeated patterns, constructs, and the like.

Tycho's disciple Johannes Kepler argued that planets moved in elliptical orbits and not circular orbits, as stated in earlier models.

Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a model centered around the Sun as an alternative to Ptolemy's Earth-centric solar system model. However, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe examined both models and said they were both wrong. Tycho succeeded in predicting and measuring the position and motion of planets and stars more accurately.

However, Tycho's disciple Johannes Kepler argued that planets moved in elliptical orbits and not circular orbits, as stated in earlier models. He developed the mathematical foundation for describing the orbits of planets around the Sun.

Galileo Galilei introduced equations that explained the nature of falling objects. These two areas of mechanics in the universe and Earth are replete with different laws of nature. Isaac Newton was able to synthesise a set of laws applicable to motion everywhere in the universe.

Newton's strange childhood

Newton was born on Christmas Day in 1642, much before the expected date of delivery. His father had died three months earlier. The doctors were doubtful if this small baby would even survive.

Newton grew up in the family home in Woolsthorpe, England. His mother abandoned him when he was three years old and married a minister. Following the demise of her new husband, she returned with her three children to join Newton who was then 11 years old. Until then, Newton had grown up with his grandmother. In addition to all this, the mother wanted Newton to help the family by looking after their orchard.

As a child, Newton was very fond of machinery. He made clocks and a working model of the mill. Drawing was also something he liked to do.

Newton went to school at the age of five, but his mother forbade him from going to school because of his work in the orchard. However, young Newton turned out to be a complete failure as a farmer. His family friends noticed Newton wandering in the orchard in despair, and they persuaded his mother to send him back to school.

So, a few days later, in 1661, Newton joined Trinity College in Cambridge. He concentrated on natural philosophy and mathematics. In 1665, he got his bachelor’s degree. During that period, he had read almost every scientific book available to him including Aristotle’s work. On his graduation days itself, he understood the studies and research conducted by Kepler and Galileo.

Four contributions

The Plague broke out in England in 1665. The pandemic was killing one in seven people in London. The University of Cambridge temporarily closed. For the next 18 months, Newton lived near his family’s orchard, and it was at that time that he made four of his most important contributions to science.

The four crucial contributions are the following:

1. Newton developed integral and differential calculus. In effect, all modern scientific thoughts and analysis depend on calculus. It is hard to imagine how science had progressed hitherto without Newton’s calculus.

2.  Newton found a number of rules in optics, especially those related to the nature of light, both coloured and white. These discoveries led to the creation of all kinds of improved optical devices, including new types of reflecting telescopes that used curved mirrors.

3.  Newton’s discovery of the Laws of Motion contains the first and clearest definition of the main idea of a force that we all use now.

4. Newton proposed the Universal Law of Gravity. It is a law that unifies the studies of the Earth and the universe like never before.

In 1687, Newton published his most important work called Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he set out his basic postulates concerning force, mass, and motion.

Of those 18 months when he made such important contributions to the world of science, Newton spoke thus: “Those days were the time of my inventions. I focused on philosophy and mathematics like never before.”

When the Plague ended in 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge. He spent the rest of his life as a highly respected scholar at Trinity College. From Assistant Professor to Senior Professor, he eventually ascended to the highest position, the Chair Professor of the University.

In 1687, Newton published his most important work called Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he set out his basic postulates concerning force, mass, and motion. Through this book, Newton laid out his laws of motion, law of universal gravitation and an extension of Kepler's laws of planetary motion. 

We can discuss Newton’s Laws of Motion in detail in the next article.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.

As a teacher, how would you describe the term "Calculus" to your students?

Can you think of the ways in which Newton's Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica influenced the works of mathematicians and physicists across the globe?

How do you describe the contributions of Isaac Newton in the development of Physical Sciences?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!