Isaac Newton (1643-1727)

English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton was born in 1643 in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, but when the university was closed because of plague in the summer of 1665, he returned home to Lincolnshire. Over the following 18 months he carried out experiments on the nature of light, began to develop his theory of gravitational mechanics and started to formulate the new mathematical tool of calculus, though he did not publish much of this work until years later.

In 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge and took up the post of Lucasian Professor in 1670. He was involved in a series of disputes with other physicists such as Robert Hooke and Christiaan Huygens, which may have been a factor in his reluctance to publish much of his work.

Nonetheless, his reputation grew, and was assured in 1687 when he published the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, commonly referred to as the Principia). This publication sets out Newton’s three laws of motion, and his law of universal gravitation. Opticks, which appeared in 1704, explained his theories of light - including that white light is made up of infinite gradations of coloured rays, which could be differentiated by their angles of refraction.

Newton’s ideas remained the cornerstone of physics for over 200 years. Although they have, to some extent, been superseded by theories such as relativity and quantum mechanics, Newtonian physics is still a standard tool for much scientific and engineering work.

He left Cambridge to take up the position of Warden of the Royal Mint in London in 1696, and became Master of the Mint in 1699. He presided over a period of recoinage and worked on methods to prevent counterfeiting.

Newton was elected president of the Royal Society in 1703, a position he held until his death in London in 1727. He spent much of his tenure engaged in a dispute with Gottfried von Leibniz over who had first invented calculus. In 1705 he became the first scientist to be knighted for his work.