In 1686-1687 Sir Isaac Newton published the three laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation, the best description of gravity for more than 200 years until Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.
Newton developed the branch of mathematics called calculus. (Gottfried Leibniz discovered calculus independently of Newton at the same time.)
He also conducted important experiments in the field of optics and showed that white light can be broken down into its component colours.
Image: A portrait of Isaac Newton (credit: American Institute of Physics/Science Photo Library)
The great English scientist makes fundamental discoveries.
Isaac Newton's sketch of his experiment with prisms that showed that white light is not pure.
Isaac Newton's sketch of his experiment with prisms that showed that white light is not pure and that unlocked the secret of the nature of light.
Professor Brian Cox explains the importance of Newton's work.
Professor Brian Cox explains how Isaac Newton came to his understanding of gravity.
Apollo scientists find that Newton didn't get it exactly right.
Although Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation is a good approximation of gravity, more precise measurements of the Moon's orbit show it is not a perfect explanation.
Sir Isaac Newton PRS MP (/ˈnjuːtən/; 25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727) was an English physicist and mathematician (described in his own day as a "natural philosopher") who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics and shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the invention of calculus.
Newton's Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists' view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. By deriving Kepler's laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the cosmos. This work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles. His prediction that the Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes.
Newton also built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours of the visible spectrum. He formulated an empirical law of cooling, studied the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, and developed Newton's method for approximating the roots of a function.
Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. In his later life, Newton became president of the Royal Society. He also served the British government as Warden and Master of the Royal Mint.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.