Sir Isaac Newton: Early Life, Education, and Work

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE JOY OF SCIENCE

By Robert M. Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

Renowned physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton is known for his works on the laws of motion and gravity. What was his childhood like and what were his interests? How did his break from Cambridge University culminate in important contributions to the field of science and mathematics? Let’s find out. 

Sculpture of  Sir Isaac Newton situated in the piazza of the British Library.
Isaac Newton invented the branch of mathematics now known as calculus. (Image: Bikeworldtravel/Shutterstock)

Early Life of Newton: A Difficult Childhood

Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day in 1642 in Woolsthorpe, a small village in Lincolnshire, East Central England. The newborn was so tiny that doctors thought the chances of his survival were grim. 

Newton’s father died three months before he was born. His mother remarried a minister when he was just three years old. The abandoned young Newton grew up with his grandmother until the age of 11.

In 1653, Newton’s mother returned for the first time after his stepfather died. She had three younger children from her second marriage. These experiences probably had an influence on Newton’s aloof personality and the likely reason for his not publishing his scientific ad mathematical discoveries for years.

Learn more about the ordered universe.

Newton’s Interests as a Child

Newton attended school from the age of five. He enjoyed drawing and was interested in making mechanical devices. As a child, he showed his ingenuity in making clocks and building working models of windmills. 

On her return to the family, Newton’s mother forced him to quit school and, much against his wishes, sent him to work at their Lincolnshire farm. It turned out that the teen was miserable as a farmer. He preferred going to school to farming and was absentminded with his agricultural chores.

Eventually, family and friends convinced Newton’s mother to send him back to school. When in school, Newton studied the contributions of classical scholars and the writings of Kepler and Galileo. 

After completing his course-related studies, Newton joined Trinity College in Cambridge in 1661. He graduated by specializing in mathematics and philosophy in 1665.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Wonder Years of Newton

During the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665 and 1666, Newton was in the prime of his inventions. When the Great Plague ravaged Europe, students at Cambridge University were sent home to prevent further outbreaks. Newton was forced to spend eighteen months at the family farm.

It was during this year and a half that Newton had time for intense personal study and thought. He went on to formulate four important contributions to science and mathematics that provided answers to the problems of scientists of those times. Newton invented the branch of mathematics now known as calculus and discovered many of the laws of optics. He also framed his three laws of motion and derived the universal law of gravitation.

In Newton’s own words:

All this was in the two plague years of 1665 and 1666, for in those days I was in my prime of age for invention, and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since.

Revered Scholar for the Rest of His Life

Title page of Newton's Principia Mathematica.
Newton published his mathematical ideas in 1687 in his work Principia Mathematica. (Image: Zhaladshar/Public domain)

In 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge University and furthered his academic work. He continued as a highly respected scholar at Trinity College with illustrious academic positions for the rest of his life.

However, many of the ideas that Newton developed during the plague years were not published for more than twenty years. It was only in 1687 that these mathematical ideas were published in Newton’s great work, Principia Mathematica.

Learn more about universal gravitation.

Early Findings on Celestial Bodies

Five thousand years ago, humans recognized certain patterns of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. They predicted the behavior of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth and created carefully oriented monuments, such as Stonehenge. Scholars continuously monitored planetary movements.

Portrait of Isaac Newton using a prism.
Newton discovered many laws of optics, experimenting with the help of a prism. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Around A.D. 100, Ptolemy proposed the longest-lasting mathematical model that considered the Earth to be the center of the solar system. The lasting influence of the European Renaissance led to a questioning culture of the previous theories.

That is when Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus suggested an alternative to the model of the solar system with the Sun at the center and the Earth orbiting around the Sun.

However, both Copernican and Ptolemaic models had failed to make accurate predictions about the exact positions of planets.

Learn more about the nature of energy.

The Culmination of Newton’s Contributions

It was in the 1640s that mathematician Johannes Kepler derived the mathematical basis for describing planetary motions. He proved that the assumptions of circular orbits of celestial bodies were erroneous. Kepler inferred that planets orbit around the Sun in elliptical paths that are somewhat elongated from a pure circle.

And then, Italian physicist Galileo Galilei used mathematical analysis to study how objects fall. He also used his analysis in the study of terrestrial mechanics and the rolling of objects on an inclined plane.

Yet, these studies of terrestrial and celestial mechanics were separate domains as people could not relate the motion of celestial objects to those on the surface of the Earth.

Finally, it was Isaac Newton who synthesized these empirical descriptions into laws of motion that could be applied across the universe. 

Common Questions about Sir Isaac Newton’s Early Life, Education, and Work

Q: What was the greatest work published by Isaac Newton?

Sir Isaac Newton‘s mathematical ideas were published in 1687 titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

Q: What were Isaac Newton’s interests as a child?

Newton enjoyed drawing and making mechanical devices. He made clocks and built working models of windmills. He preferred going to school to farming on the family farm.

Q: What is Sir Isaac Newton best known for?

Sir Isaac Newton is best known for his invention of calculus, formulating the laws of motion, discovering many of the laws of optics, and the theory of universal gravity.

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