xxxxxAs we have seen, it was in the 1660s that the brilliant English scientist Isaac Newton made three important discoveries: he invented differential calculus, discovered the law of universal gravity, and made important advances in the study of light - research which led to the publication of one of his greatest works, the Principia in 1687 (J2). His early work into the properties of light proved the basis for his second major work Opticks, published in 1704. This contained his corpuscular theory of light, a theory which, in fact, he had arrived at as early as 1672 but, angered by having his findings questioned, had delayed publishing for over 30 years! As noted earlier, delays of this nature and his high-handed manner were the cause of bitter disputes with some of his fellow scientists, including Gottfried Leibniz, Robert Hooke, Christiaan Huygens and John Flamsteed. He became president of the Royal Society in 1703 and often used his position to carry on his vendettas, but such criticism must not detract from his incredible contribution to scientific knowledge. He was warden of the Royal Mint from 1698 and, for a time, MP for Cambridge University.

ISAAC NEWTON 1642 - 1727

(C1, CW, C2, J2, W3, AN, G1)


Gottfried Leibniz

xxxxxAs we have seen (1687 J2), the brilliant English scientist Isaac Newton was born near Grantham, Lincolnshire, and had a troubled childhood, a fact which might well account for his psychosomatic tendencies, shown above all by his fits of rage, his acute sense of insecurity, and his aversion to any hint of criticism. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661, and was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics at the university just eight years later.

xxxxxNot surprisingly, his first major achievement was in the field of mathematics. Having already formulated the binomial theorem, in 1666 he developed what came to be known as “differential calculus”. However, he did not publish his findings and this led to the first of several disputes, on this occasion with the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. Having followed the same line of inquiry and come up with similar if not more advanced conclusions, the German made them public in 1684. This infuriated Newton. He claimed to be the sole inventor of this mathematical instrument, and publicly accused Leibniz of deliberate plagiarism in a ferocious quarrel which lasted for well over twenty years. Newton lost no opportunity to vilify his opponent, even after his death.

xxxxxIt was in this same year, 1684, that, thanks to the insistence of his friend, the astronomer Edmund Halley, he produced his tract On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit. The ideas he put forward in this work, revised and expanded over the next three years, resulted in his scientific masterpiece the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, universally known as the Principia. Published in 1687 at Halley’s expense, this epoch-making work set out the three standard laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation. Unfortunately, publication was followed by another acrimonious dispute, this time with the English astronomer Robert Hooke. He accused Newton of having stolen his discovery of the inverse square law of gravitation. Newton denied the charge. Wherever the truth lies, it can be said with certainty that Newton was the first to demonstrate this law mathematically. Meanwhile Newton, beside himself with rage, omitted any reference to Hooke in future revisions of his work and, because earlier he had scornfully dismissed some of his findings on light and colour, refused to publish any work on this subject - or accept the presidency of the Royal Society - until after Hooke’s death.

xxxxxIt was as early as the 1660s, in fact, that Newton began his research into the properties of light. Indeed, it was to assist in his experiments with light and prisms that he made his own reflecting telescope in 1668, the first of its kind. But, for the reason explained, it was not until 1704, that he summed up his life’s work on the properties of light in his Opticks, a treatise in which he defended the corpuscular theory of light. He arrived at this theory by means of a series of practical experiments. From these he deduced that sunlight is a heterogeneous mixture of many different types of rays, that these rays are refracted (or bent) at distinct angles, and that each type of ray produces a given colour of the spectrum. Confident in the validity of his findings, in 1672 he sent an outline of his theory to the Royal Society, but when it was published in the society’s Philosophical Transactions, some of its content was questioned, notably by Hooke and the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. This deeply angered Newton and led to a nervous breakdown. He eventually carried on with his research but, fearful as ever of criticism, and angered by Hooke’s haughty rebuff, it was over 30 years before his pioneer work on the nature of light was published.

xxxxxBy the turn of the century Newton was an important and highly respected public figure. He was the Member of Parliament for Cambridge University for a number of years, and master of the Royal Mint in London - where he carried through a reform of the coinage and came to be regarded as the scourge of the forger. In 1703 he was elected president of the Royal Society - an office he held for the rest of his life -, and at a special ceremony at Cambridge two years later Queen Anne knighted her “most illustrious subject”.

xxxxxBut despite his honourable status, he was quite capable of dishonourable behaviour. It was at this time that he became involved in yet another bitter controversy, and one which earned him no credit. Anxious to advance his lunar theory, he conspired with his close friend Edmund Halley to obtain the data he needed from the astronomical observations made and held by John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal. Flamsteed, who had earlier helped Newton with his Principia, wished to keep these findings unpublished until his work was completed, but Newton, taking advantage of his position as President of the Royal Society, forced Flamsteed to hand over his observations. In 1712 Halley edited them and had them published. Before they were circulated, however, Flamsteed managed to retrieve and destroy all but a hundred of the printed copies. To add insult to injury, when Newton later revised his Principia he removed any references to Flamsteed’s help with the first edition!

xxxxxIt was in 1696, following a further period of mental ill-health, that he was appointed warden of the Royal Mint, and moved to London to take up his duties. It is known that he lived in St. Martin’s Street near Leicester Square from 1710 to 1725. During his time in London he made a fortune on the stock exchange, revised the Principia and the Optiks, and continued to preside over the meetings of the Royal Society. And it was as the society’s president that he continued to mount his attacks upon his rivals, Leibniz and Flamsteed. In 1725 he settled in Kensington, a small village just outside London, and it was here that he died two years later. A wealthy and highly respected member of society, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where an elaborate marble monument to his memory was erected in 1731, the work of the Flemish-born sculptor John Michael Rysbrack.

xxxxxBut the unfortunate controversies that punctuated Newton’s long career can in no way detract from his staggering achievements across so wide a field of human endeavour, be it in astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, optics or planetary motion. A man of genius, he stands alongside Galileo and Einstein as one of the three greatest scientific explorers of the universe. The English poet Alexander Pope summed up his accomplishments:

                Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;

                God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

xxxxxAnd later the English poet William Wordsworth spoke of Newton voyaging through “strange seas of thought, alone”.

Towards the end of his life Newton wrote:

xxxxxIf I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants .... I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. Some boy!

xxxxxThe German scientist Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), the man who had so stormy a relationship with Isaac Newton, published his major work The Monadology in 1714. In this he held that the world was made up of an infinite number of units (“monads”) and these determined the past, present and future. God was the supreme monad, and so the world was the best of all possible worlds. The broad outline of his philosophy was contained in his Essais de Théodicée, published in 1710. In it, he rejected Locke’s theory that humans only learnt from experience. Encouraged by Christiaan Huygens, he discovered the calculus in the mid 1670s, but when he published his findings in 1684 and 1686 he was accused of plagiarism by Newton. The feud that followed lasted his lifetime. A man of wide interest who worked as a diplomat, he wrote on theology, history, law and physics, and he designed a number of mechanical devices. But his greatest contribution outside of philosophy and mathematics was the advice he gave on education.

xxxxxGottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), the man with whom Isaac Newton had so stormy a relationship, was born in Leipzig and studied in his native city and at the universities of Jena and Altdorf. Although of immense ability, notably in mathematics and philosophy, he spent most of his working life as a diplomat. His travels took him to France, England, Austria and Italy.

xxxxxHis major work, The Monadology, published in 1714, set out to explain the nature of the world by a highly imaginative and optimistic theory. Based on the idea of a single underlying principle, this proposed that the world was made up of an infinite number of units which he called "monads". These centres of spiritual energy, each with individual properties, determined the past, present and future. The first monad had been God, and he had made all the remaining monads at the time of creation. As these units were indestructible, and as God was all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good (the Monad of Monads), it followed that our world was the very best of all possible worlds, and one in which Christian belief and scientific reason were not in conflict. Other important works included New Essays concerning Human Understanding of 1703, and his Essais de Théodicée, published in 1710 and containing a broad outline of his philosophy. As a Rationalist, he strongly opposed the empiric theory, put forward by the English philosopher John Locke, that humans only learnt through experience.

xxxxxIt was over the years 1673 to 1676 that Leibniz discovered the calculus, encouraged by the teaching of the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens. He went on to publish his account of differential calculus in 1684 and that of integral calculus two years later. Newton, in fact, had made virtually the same discovery a decade earlier - anticipating its use in physics - but he had not made his work public. When Leibniz’s findings were published, complete with useful symbols, Newton openly accused him of plagiarism and there followed an incredibly bitter feud between them, a "battle" in which, of the two, Newton was particularly vindictive. Even after Leibniz’s death, he took every opportunity to criticise him and renew his accusation against him. Leibniz was a rather quiet, bookish individual by nature, and this acrimonious dispute clearly marred the latter part of his life.

xxxxxA man of incredibly wide interest and knowledge, he also wrote on theology, law, history, diplomacy and physics. He tried his hand at designing a number of mechanical devices, including a lamp, clock and a water pump, and in 1673 succeeded in constructing a calculating machine (illustrated) which, incorporating a crude method of multiplication, was an advance upon the earlier model made by the French scientist Blaise Pascal in 1642. He at one time put forward the idea of building a canal through the Isthmus of Suez, and over many years he put his mind to devising what he called his Universal Characteristic, a logical language which could be understood by everyone. But outside of his work in philosophy and mathematics, perhaps his greatest contribution was in the field of education. He met Peter the Great on a number of occasions to advise him on educational reforms in Russia, and he was instrumental in founding science academies in both St. Petersburg and Berlin.

xxxxxIncidentally, Leibniz’s apparent view of life, seen as far too optimistic in his Monadology - our world being the very best of all possible worlds - came in for some savage satire in the novel entitled Candide, a major work by the French philosopher Voltaire, published in 1759.


Newton: by the German/British portrait painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), 1702 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Leibniz: 18th century, artist unknown – Lower Saxony State Museum, Hanover, Germany.