Tuesday 25 December 2012

Isaac Newton 25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727

Isaac Newton, 1689
Christmas Day 2012 marks the 370th anniversary of the birth of Sir Isaac Newton, arguably England's greatest ever mathematician. His achievements in maths and the sciences are wide-ranging and monumental.

Newton made seminal discoveries in several areas of science, and was considered the leading scientist of his era. His study of optics included using a prism to show white light could be split into a spectrum of colours. The statement of his three laws of motion are fundamental in the study of mechanics. He was the first to suggest that the moon is falling in a circle around the earth, under the same influence of gravity as a falling apple, as described by his law of universal gravitation.

As a mathematician, Newton devised infinitesimal calculus to make the calculations needed in his studies, which he published in his greatest work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In the development of differential and integral calculus, Newton shares credit with the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who made similar discoveries independently, at around the same time. In the late 17th century, the two men were locked, for some time, in a bitter dispute around these developments, with Newton accusing the German of plagiarism and worse. It is notation more similar to that adopted by Leibniz that is used in modern-day calculus.

Newton's theory of gravitation survived intact until the early 20th century, when Einstein's work on relativity modified, extended or supplanted it to some extent.

The dispute with Leibniz casts a shadow over the great man's life. There was, however, an element of modesty, when he wrote to another rival, Robert Hooke, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Isaac Newton's work was remarkable, ground-breaking and wide-ranging. No doubt many others will continue to stand on Newton's own shoulders, in the extraordinary mathematical discoveries that, no doubt, the future will hold.

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