A long time ago, on December 25, a baby boy was born. He had no Earthly father, but he would go on to transform Western thought before he even turned 30.
He also started arguably one of history’s most boring wars, spent a worrying amount of time poking stuff into his own eyeballs, and was possibly history’s quietest politician. And yet despite those possibly more interesting diversions, he is most famous today for discovering the laws of gravity after an apple supposedly fell on his head. That’s right: we’re talking about Sir Isaac Newton.
Let’s start at the beginning: yes, Newton was really born on Christmas Day, a few months after the death of his father – although owing to a papal miscalculation (or if you’re feeling conspiratorial, 300 fake years being shoved into history) we would now consider his birthday to be January 4. While these days that’s just the basis for a festive prank, at the time it was considered a sign of heavenly favor. He was a lonely kid, which makes sense when you learn that he once threatened to burn down his mum and stepdad’s house with them still inside.
He was a keen student though, and in 1661 he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge. There, he would be taught the leading scientific theories of the day, which at the time was still the “Physics” that had been written by Aristotle nearly two millennia beforehand. Newton had to look elsewhere for mental stimulation, devouring works by Euclid, Descartes, and Kepler, and catching the eye of Cambridge’s first-ever math professor, Isaac Barrow. With Barrow as his mentor, Newton would develop the beginnings of what would become binomial theory and calculus.
A couple of months after he graduated, the country was hit by Plague. Just like much of the world over the past 18 months, Newton was forced to self-isolate at his family home in the country for the next two years. Unlike most of us, however, he didn’t spend lockdown watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in his pajamas. Instead, he spent his time revolutionizing math and physics in a way that, in retrospect, makes him sound completely bananas.
For example, he spent a bunch of time sticking large, blunt needles (among other things) behind his eyeballs just to see what would happen. He developed a “corpuscular” theory of light that was more like alchemy than science. And he set up an experiment designed specifically to expose his eyes to as intense a blast of direct sunlight as possible, leading to three days of blindness. But instead of going down in history as “that weirdo who keeps trying to blind himself”, Newton wrote Opticks, revolutionized scientific methodology and communication, and built the first known working reflecting telescope.
Isaac Newton was also, famously, kind of a jerk. He rightly went down in history for developing his Laws of Motion, but he ruined the life and legacy of the friend who reintroduced him to astronomy in the first place just because he wouldn't give Newton early access to his data. He famously fell out so acrimoniously with fellow physicist Robert Hooke that it’s said he’s the reason we now have no idea what Hooke looked like.
Despite all this, Isaac Newton never lost sight of his true calling: science.
Just kidding! While he was discovering the laws of gravitation, optics, mechanics, mathematics, and more, Newton kept busy secretly working on what he called his “Great Work”: alchemy. He wrote around a million words on topics like how to turn base metals into gold or the nature of God and his notes included references to “the man of silver” and “green lyons”.
In fact, despite his legacy as one of history’s pre-eminent scientists, the best description of Isaac Newton perhaps came from John Maynard Keynes:
“Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”