Issac Newton, a scientist, scarcer than hen’s teeth


Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Transcending the boundary between the modern/West and pre-modern/East, science provides the progress of civilisations towards modernity because of Western technological innovations. Going up to the 5th floor of the modern Sangai Boutique Hotel in Imphal, by a fast lift rather than by an ancient ladder made of bamboo must be avant-garde civilisation.
A scientific invention called a lift (elevator in America) by a man called Otis of New York in 1857, has made climbing stairs to different floors the best thing since sliced bread. The lift uses a counterweight to make it easier for the electric motor to elevate a loaded lift car against the forces of gravity. For this bit of civilisation we owe a lot to Issac Newton.
Because of Newton we are now on the brink of landing on Mars and colonising it in the coming decades (NASA). Issac Newton’s description of the action of gravity is so precise that it was used to guide the Apollo astronauts on their journey to the moon.
Ever since I learnt in science in middle school, why a rupee coin and a bit of paper cut to the same size and placed under it, when dropped from a standing height, will fall to the ground at the same time, I stuck to science. The reason why the paper takes time if dropped separately is because of air resistance to the paper. If dropped in a vacuum separately, they will fall and arrive at the same time.
This was proven to be correct when an Apollo astronaut dropped a feather and a hammer on the moon that has no atmosphere, and saw them fall and reach the noon’s surface at the same time. In advanced law of gravity, why the paper and the metal coin should fall and arrive at the same time is because while falling, mass (weight) does not affect the acceleration due to gravity.
After studying classical mechanics in secondary school, Newton changed the way I understood the universe, with his discovery of gravity and laws of motion. Three and half century later, Albert Einstein did not understand gravity.
Newton lived in the seams of pre-science and modern period. He was thus religious. He studied Arts at Cambridge but became the greatest mathematician who ever lived, all self-taught. He invented Calculus, used for calculations, in the way geometry is the study of shapes.
Newton devised his theory of gravity by a simple mathematical formula, ‘Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation’. It states that a particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres.
Why Newton’s law is universal is because it applies everywhere in the universe and to everything except in the vicinity of black holes, too close to massive stars or moving close to the speed of light. Here, Einstein’s theory of general relativity is required.
Newton found gravity is a force of attraction that exists between all objects, strong enough to keep our feet on the ground. It’s the force that moves the universe with unlimited scope throughout the entire story of the universe. Everything in the Universe is subject to gravity. It’s the first force we experience everyday life. We know it’s gravity that makes us stand on Earth, holds water in the oceans and why the atmosphere continues to hug our planet or, why the rain falls and rivers flow.
Newer research shows that volcanoes erupt as gravity deforms volcanoes. A Japanese research found that earthquakes are more likely to occur at times of a Full Moon or New Moon, from the effects of the gravitational interaction of the Moon and the Sun on a rotating Earth.
To be fair, before Newton, Johannes Kepler and Tyco Brahe knew that because of some sort of mutual attraction, all planets move in elliptical orbits around the Sun. Newton was able to prove mathematically that it was the law of gravity that holds everywhere in the universe.
How Newton got his idea of gravity from a falling apple in the garden of his childhood home remains legendary. This most famous apocryphal story in the history of science presumably happened in the late summer of 1666. Newton lived in a sheep-farming house in Woolsthorpe hamlet in Lincolnshire, near the market town of Grantham in England.
Woolsthorpe is one and half hours’ drive (104 km) from Cambridge up north. Years ago, it was quite a thrill when I went to see it, especially the room where he split light through a glass prism into colours (an experiment, incidentally, I was given for my final I Sc physics practical examination).
The apple tree was still there and I believe is still alive. You can see a graft of this tree in Kew Gardens, Richmond in Southwest London. The apple might not have hit Newton in the head, but I still picture it that way and how he wondered why the apple was attracted to the ground in the first place, not going sideways or upwards. His wandering thought led to his publication of the Theory of Universal Gravitation in the 1680s. The theory simply states that each particle of matter attracts every other particle.
The first authentic written account of the falling apple appears to be in a manuscript that would become a biography of Newton, entitled Memoirs of Sir Issac Newton’s Life by William Stukeley, an archaeologist, published in 1752. Newton told the story to him, who relayed it as follows:
“All heard the story. A young Isaac Newton is sitting beneath an apple tree contemplating the mysterious universe. Suddenly – boink! -an apple hits him on the head. “Aha!” he shouts, or perhaps, “Eureka!” In a flash he understands that the very same force that brought the apple crashing toward the ground also keeps the moon falling toward the Earth and the Earth falling toward the sun: gravity.” The Royal Society has made the manuscript available today for the first time.
Newton was born prematurely on Christmas morning of December 25 1642 in Woolsthorpe. He was a tiny baby and was not expected to survive the day. He died aged 84 on March 20 1726. He was a lonely boy who hated his step father. Newton’s father died before he was born. When he was three, his mother left him with his grandmother and married a man from a nearby village. It was very scary for him. He hated his stepfather and threatened to burn his house down.
At school in his village, he was moved by literature and poetry, but loved mechanics and technology. He invented an elaborate system of sundials, which was accurate to the minute. While his mother hoped he would run the family farm, his uncle and his headmaster realised Newton was destined for an intellectual life.
Newton, an average student at the free Grammar School, did earn an opportunity to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he wanted to study law. As his mother refused to pay for his education, while in college, he worked as a servant to pay his way. He entered Cambridge University in 1661 and received a bachelor’s degree (BA) in Arts In 1665. While still a student, he read recent works on Opticks and light by the English physicist Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke.
It was the time of the Great Bubonic plague of 1665 and Civil War in England. London was the epicentre of the outbreak that was spreading rapidly across England. But the quiet village of Woolsthorpe was untouched by either the civil war or plague.
There were no preventive measures or cures, apart from culling innocent dogs and cats, and lighting of fires to clean the air. Infected villages were quarantined and schools and colleges were closed. One such place affected was Trinity College, Cambridge, and one of the students to take a leave of absence was Issac Newton. It was in the summer of 1665.
Newton, who wasn’t the brightest student, had then graduated. He was 22. He returned to his family home in Woolsthorpe. He took with him many books on mathematics and Euclid geometry, Descartes, as well as an astronomy book that he bought from a fair. Back home, he immersed himself and began to think about the physical world and the laws underpinning it.
During this 2 to 3 years of intense study, he was destined to change the world in a scientific model. It was during this time that he prepared his greatest contribution to modern science, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), commonly known as Principia though it wasn’t published until 1687.
On returning to Cambridge in 1667, he was elected as a fellow, and in 1669 he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (a post recently held by Stephen Hawking, and currently held by string theorist Michael Green). Newton spent the next 20 years lecturing and working in a diverse range of subjects: scientific including alchemy (early unscientific form of chemistry), and pseudo-scientific, such as the prediction of the date of (Biblical) apocalypse. His major work on Opticks, appeared in 1703.
Newton’s gravity is a force that keeps us and the universe going round in an orderly fashion.
(The writer is based in the UK Email:irengbammsingh@gmail.com Website: www.drimsingh.co.uk)

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