The Gravity of Genius 

By: Justin Keeling

The history of England has often been dictated by the strong religious convictions of its people. In the seventeenth century the English nation faced a major religious civil war, the overthrow of James and his rigid Catholic standards, and the beginning of William and Mary's Protestant reign. As the turmoil between ruling factions weighed on the minds of the citizens, Isaac Newton was able quietly to make some of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time. Intellectually head and shoulders above his peers, Newton lived a life dedicated to creating systematic mathematical processes and scientific laws that are presently used during experimentation of twenty first century. A & E's documentary, Sir Isaac Newton: The Gravity of Genius, probes deep into the greatness of Isaac Newton and gives a thorough explanation of his importance to the knowledge of mankind. Produced by Peter Doyle and narrated by Jack Perkins, the film takes a chronological approach of reconstructing the discoveries, colleagues, and events that could shape a man to make a never-ending mark in the history of the world.

In the winter of 1642, Newton began defying the odds at birth by merely surviving the ordeal with a widowed mother in the middle of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell's Civil War. The marriage of his mother Hanna to Barnabas Smith gave her the financial stability to begin Isaac's education at King's Grammar School in Grantham. Dr. Allan Chapman Professor of Astronomy at Oxford University describes young Newton as a small stubborn child with few friends or interests in education. Books on alchemy, mechanical toys, and mixing of primitive potions soon sparked Isaac's interests. The video credits John Davis' Mysteries of Nature and Art as being the favorite book and early influence of the budding genius. Newton's teacher, Henry Stokes, pleaded with Hanna to enroll her son in a university equally matched to Newton's advancement to the top of his graduating class. Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Sir Michael Atiyah, described the institution as primitive and felt that Newton probably gained the majority of his knowledge on his own. His interest in René Descartes' mechanical philosophy linked him with Mathematics Professor Isaac Barrow. Barrow introduced Newton to to Cartesian geometry and algebra. These new challenges, along with Newton's study of Kepler's laws of planetary motion, were the beginning of Isaac Newton's life-long love affair with mathematics. Concerning the feat of teaching himself everything known about modern math, Richard Westfall, Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at Indiana University said, "He knew he was better than the best of the mathematicians that he studied, and began to set himself apart." Describing Newton with a bachelor of arts degree in hand, accompanied by his understanding of his intellectual superiority, the video had set the stage for his exciting scientific discoveries and contributions yet to come.

Newton's intelligence earned him a scholarship for graduate studies, but the university closed for eighteen months on account of its plague infestation. Back home, without the distractions of university life, he began the work on what would later be known as he greatest achievement, the laws of gravitation. He also immersed himself on procedures he invented to measure continuous motion and areas of complex shape called Fluxions. The A&E production describes Newton as a man looking for challenges not glory. He involved himself only in the pursuit of knowledge and not in self-promotion; many of his breakthroughs, such as Fluxions, now known as calculus, went unpublished. Barrow finally persuaded Newton to at least document these ideas for the world to see in his first unpublished paper De Analysi. Newton's invention of the first mirrored telescope earned him a membership in London's distinguished organization called the Royal Society. Harvard University Professor, Bernard Cohen, felt that Newton's new feelings of acceptance persuaded him to publish the paper on light. Robert Hooke and other colleagues, because of Newton's extensive use of experimentation and analysis, ridiculed the publication. Without any reference to the general metaphysics and the divinity of world creation, the scientific community could not relate to the advances he had made with such an unheard approach. Accused of borrowing ideas from others, Newton felt unappreciated and vowed never to publish again. "I see I have made myself the slave of philosophy. I will only work for my private satisfaction" (Newton 1676).


Newton accepted a job in mathematics at his alma matter and his feelings for Cartesian mechanical philosophy soon turned to distaste. His deep religious beliefs and the scars of ridicule brought feelings of doubt as his studies returned to Alchemy and Theology. Westfall said, "He began to worry about materialistic and atheistic implications of mechanical philosophy. He looked towards the more natural philosophies where spirit, not matter, was the center of the world. He worked diligently in the well respected field of scripture translations." The film displayed Newton as feeling it was his duty to use his God-given talent to reveal the secrets of nature and the bible. His studies in this area turned toward attempts at dating the scriptures. During these endeavors in theology and searching for the spirit of nature, Newton never left his old methods of using mathematics and analysis to research each field. This rare approach is what set Newton apart from everyone as the mathematical and physical laws of nature became more evident.

Narrator Jack Perkins pointed out that all intellectuals believed and proved Kepler's law of elliptical motion of planets, but had no mathematical explanation. In 1684, after long deliberation with peers, famous astronomer Edmund Halley decided to seek the opinion of Isaac Newton. The before mentioned Bernard Cohen adds to the work by describing a mock account of a discussion between Newton and Halley upon the topic. Realizing Newton had solved one of the great mysteries of the universe, Halley wanted proof. London's Royal Society did not have the resources to fund further research and writing for a polished publication. Halley knew the importance of the discovery and in 1687 became the sole publisher of one of the greatest scientific expressions, Isaac Newton's Principia.

The video gives an overview of the contents of the Principia and stresses the modes that Newton used for expression. Principia is structured as a rhetorical argument and discussion. It explains the extensive use of geometry and to try and solve the motion and forces causing orbits. Perkins states, "Newton's three laws of motion," within the text of Principia "gave the framework for dynamics and celestial mechanics, the basis of modern science." Structuring the universe through laws of gravitation, Principia explained the motion of comets, procession of the equinoxes, and many natural phenomena. Regarded by Cohen as the most important scientific discovery ever written or published, it displayed Newton's genius and gave him the fame he rightfully deserved.

Isaac Newton was, finally, one of the most recognizable figures in Britain. His newly found enjoyment of people's company, leadership skills, and fame earned him a seat in Parliament. He played important roles in historical events, for example, attending William and Mary's coronation and helping vote for a Bill of Rights. Though he never married, the video pointed out that Newton enjoyed a young male companion. This significant other was his only emotional relationship and their parting caused a nervous breakdown. To restore the emotional health of the man responsible for solving the great secrets of nature Newton was placed in charge of the Royal Mint and was knighted by Queen Anne for his contributions.

The man known as Sir Isaac Newton continued to make progress in science with publications on light as well as his earlier works on calculus. The year 1727 marked the death of Newton and he was remembered in a lavish funeral, fit for royalty. The A&E documentary quotes Pope Alexander as saying, "God said let Newton be and all was light." To fully understand the impact of Isaac Newton's contributions one should thoroughly examine his proven methods that are used today. Sir Isaac Newton: The Gravity of Genius offers an in depth look at a man who fought through ridicule and adversity to produce brilliance on an intellectual level. The narration of Jack Perkins and compilations of scholarly praise offered throughout the film pay fitting homage to a man who opened our eyes to so much.

The following books are recommended:: Michael White's biography Isaac Newton. The Last Sorcerer (Reading MA Addison Wesley, 1997); A. Rupert Hall's Isaac Newton: Adventurer in Thought (Oxford, Blackwell, 1992); and Richard S. Westfall's The Life of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1993)