Documentaries as educational tools and as entertainment for mass audiences made a great leap forward in the past fifty years. In particular, biography introduced a host of famous personalities to audiences world-wide. Amidst the welter of Alexanders, Caesars, Marie Antoinettes, and Cleopatras, relative few have dealt with scientists and inventors. Recent years show an increasing trend to do so. In coming issues, Clio’s Eye will print reviews of a few of the more interesting and worthwhile documentaries in the areas of scientific advances. Submissions by authors, professional historians, amateurs, or students on scientific documentaries are invited.
Quotes from Sir Isaac Newton:
If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.
Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.
Sir Isaac Newton: Gravity of Genius
by Timothy Ehlinger & Clio Staff
Sir Isaac Newton was born prematurely in 1642 during the dawning turbulence of the English Civil War. Unfortunately, Isaac Newton’s father had died three months before his birth, so his mother raised him until she remarried so Isaac lived with his grandparents who became his primary care givers for a large portion of his early life. When Isaac was a young boy, he attended a local school; however, he did not pay much attention to his studies and was often alone and unsociable. In addition to his isolated nature as a child, Newton was often bullied because of his small stature as a child; later he gained a bit of a reputation as a ruffian and learned give as good as he got. As a student, he was fairly average, or even below average in his studies until he met a man who ran the local apothecary shop. Newton was fascinated with all the different potions and journals that lined the shelves of the shop so the owner allowed him to observe the potion making and read the many books. Newton became wildly intrigued with the work, reading many of the studies including The Mysteries of Nature and Art by John Bates. He began to excel in school and rose quickly to the top of the class with his new passion for learning.
At age seventeen, Newton’s mother called him home to help run the farm, but this would mean that all the knowledge gained through years of education would be wasted. One of Newton’s professors, Henry Stokes, pleaded with Newton’s mother to allow the teenager to remain in school rather than become a simple farmer. Stokes could see that Newton had unique university potential. Reluctantly, Newton’s mother agreed. Certainly, if Newton was successful and educated, his value would increase in comparison to being a simple farmhand.
In 1660, Newton applied and was accepted to Trinity College at Cambridge University. Without financial support from his mother, he worked a variety of jobs to pay tuition and living expenses. He was eager to learn and was often found in the libraries or studying alone since he was still not very sociable. Newton later came to know Isaac Barrow, who introduced him to Galileo Galilei’s philosophy of motion and gravity as well as to Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and to the innovative work in algebra and geometry of René Descartes. Newton fell in love with mathematics. He became consumed with working on complex formulas and problems that he found in these subjects. In 1664, Newton received his Bachelor's degree from Cambridge. His passion for math and science had known no bounds at the college, and would have continued to grow. A turn of events, however, changed this course. He was forced to return to his mother's farm when the college was closed for fourteen months due to a terrible outbreak of Bubonic Plague (1665-1666).
Yet, during this time, Newton began some of his most important work. With free time to think at the farm, he did remarkable research in math, science, and even started his study with the law of gravitational pull. He also made great strides in his research and compiled a list of notes and sketches together. Nevertheless, he remained apprehensive about publishing his work. By 1666, still reluctant to publish his studies about gravity and his advances in calculus (which he called fluxious), Newton realized that his research would be a huge breakthrough in math as a whole. Eventually, he decided to show his notes and research to a select few, including Professor Barrows. Barrows quickly convinced Newton that he should publish his work known as De Analysi.
Newton, now comfortable with his work, took up interests in the studies of light and the color spectrum of visible light. To further his testing, he purchased a prism for conducting his tests. Examing the knowledge found with how light works, Newton had an idea of how he could not only improve a telescope but build a brand new type of telescope which worked on magnification by a mirror rather than just bigger lenses. When word of Newton’s new invention spread, it caught the attention of the Royal Society. In 1671, he was asked to run a test to judge the scope’s effectiveness. It proved a great success and with the approval of a majority of members, Newton was immediately voted into the Society.
Newton’s first major published paper was about his work and discoveries involving light and how light behaves. The paper was closely scrutinized heavily by the most brilliant minds of the time due to their reluctance to accept new information about this topic. Disheartened by the negative feedback, Newton neglected publication of his other works on calculus and math studies. He actually vowed to never publish again because of all the criticism he received, but this was not the end of his research and testing in the coming years.
In the meantime, Newton received ordination in the Anglican Church in 1669. After much research into the early history of Christianity, Newton was convinced that the Doctrine of the Trinity was a fraud perpetrated since the first or second century. As a professor of the Holy Trinity at Cambridge and an avid man of God, he could never speak openly of his anti-Trinitarian beliefs. Yet, he never spoke of these negative beliefs because his very basis in his quest for knowledge revolved around his faith, and the importance of faith in his life. Newton felt that many scientists of his day had removed God from nature, which he found abhorrent. He believed that God gave certain men the capacity and the knowledge to unlock the secrets of this world and how it worked. Newton’s vast and extensive research in mathematics, science, and physics paled in comparison to his research in theology. He wanted to find the true meaning behind the word of God through careful analysis as a scientific method, rather than through a spiritual search. Newton determined that God made the Earth and the universe to be discerned by men if they applied themselves to learning the knowledge of how the world functions.
With the sudden death of Newton’s mother in 1679, he lost one of his closest confidants as there were very few people with whom he could discuss his research. He became a recluse for some time before rejoining the academic world. Newton embarked on a series letters with his academic rival, Robert Hooke, about the planetary alignment theories whereby the planets followed along a tangent with a central force pulling them toward the center. Often underrated today, Hooke’s reputation is on the rise. He occupies five volumes in Robert Theodore Gunther’s 1684 fourteen volume study of early scientific developments, Early Science In Oxford. Newton was challenged to prove his research and knowledge of gravitational forces; he was unable to do so at the time. Instead, Newton sent a short paper entitled "On the Motion of Revolving Bodies" to a few scholars who recognized the extraordinary nature of his theories. Newton continued revising and adding new detail for a presentation in the Royal Society library.
Newton was urged to write a book on his discoveries and how incredibly significant his research had been in terms of math and science. He obliged and in 1687 the publication of Principia Mathematica detailed stunning advances in mathematics and science, as well as the geometrical relationship involved of planets and their pulls on one another. Using all of his research and knowledge, he defined three new laws of motion that became a fundamental part of science and are still vital today. Newton also revealed a description of how to measure the mass of planets and why they have a particular orbit. The Principia is the single most important publication in terms of modern mathematics; however Newton gave no clear description of gravity: he only explained how it works.
With the publication of his books and papers, Newton became the most famous scientist in all of Britain. His total research and advancements in math revised his fame and earned him a place in Parliament. He soon became a close friend to leading politicians and influential men of his day; this popularity improved Newton’s views of society. Yet, in 1693, he suffered a nervous breakdown that affected his work and social standing. During a state of hysteria, Newton wrote two letters, one to John Locke and the other to Samuel Pepys. The contents can only be described as eccentric or insane. Many feared that his genius was too much for him and was the cause of the panic that affected him. The crises subsided eventually over the next two decades but he never fully regained his reputation for consistent brilliance.
Nevertheless upon the death of Robert Hooke, Newton became head of the Royal Society in 1703 and again in 1705, Her Majesty Queen Anne, 1701-1714, came down to Cambridge and bestowed upon him the honor of knighthood in recognition for his advances in math and science, and his influence in the scientific intellectual community. Growing old and in a position of power, Newton released many of his earlier works hoping to influence young minds and inspire an entire new generation of intellectual discoveries. He died in 1727 and a grand funeral displayed the pomp and circumstance fit for royalty.
Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most influential men in a century of progress. Newton laid the foundation for the next three centuries. Newton’s life reflects the film world’s problem with scientific biography. The relative simplicity of complex thought is often difficult to portray even in Hollywood style fiction.A handful of documentaries do considerable justice to Isaac Newton:
Isaac Newton: His Life and Work, 1983.
Isaac Newton - Documentary, 1995
BBC Documentary: History of Sir Isaac Newton, 2014
Isaac Newton Biography
Discovery Channel's - Secret Life of Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton by Andres Pena & Isaac Newton by The Physicalist
Physics: Laws of Motion - Newton and Beyond
Beyond the Big Bang: Sir Isaac Newton's Law of Gravity Trimmed