Spotlight: Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727 AD) is known for what major scientific breakthrough?


Answer: Gravity, along with laws of motion and pre-enlightenment ideology based on natural law

Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727 AD) was an English physicist and mathematician who is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, first published in 1687, laid the foundations for most of classical mechanics

Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. It also demonstrated that the motion of objects on the Earth and that of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles.

Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum. He also formulated an empirical law of cooling and studied the speed of sound.

It was Newton’s conception of the Universe based upon Natural and rationally understandable laws that became one of the seeds for Enlightenment ideology. Locke and Voltaire applied concepts of Natural Law to political systems advocating intrinsic rights; the physiocrats and Adam Smith applied Natural conceptions of psychology and self-interest to economic systems; and sociologists criticized the current social order for trying to fit history into Natural models of progress.

The mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange often said that Newton was the greatest genius who ever lived, and once added that Newton was also “the most fortunate, for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish.”

English poet Alexander Pope was so moved by Newton’s accomplishments to write the famous epitaph:

  • Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;  God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.

In one of Newton’s memoir, he wrote:

  • I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Newton’s famous monument (1731) can be seen in Westminster Abbey, at the north of the entrance to the choir against the choir screen, near his tomb.  The Latin inscription on the base translates as:

  • Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colors thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race!

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