Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton spoke of those intellectual giants who went before him— Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo, among others. What the scientists before Newton had done was nothing short of incredible. Taking one step at a time, they shattered over a thousand years of philosophical, religious, and scientific “truths.” Without the work of any one of these “giants,” the scientific community would have had to wait much longer to prove what Copernicus hypothesized.
However, the “giants” failed to put it all together in one organized and accurate system that explained the universe. Scientists had worked with planetary motion, motion of objects on Earth, geocentric versus heliocentric systems, and more. What was missing, though, was a synthesis of all of those things. That synthesis would appear less than 50 years after the death of Galileo.
Sir Isaac Newton
Perhaps the most brilliant of all the minds of the Scientific Revolution, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was an Englishman who had already achieved more by the age of 24 than most scientists achieve in a lifetime. Many of the theories Newton developed in his life regarding physics remained unproved for over 200 years because the math needed had not yet been invented.
“Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician prescribes because we need them; and he proportions the frequency and weight of them to what the case requires. Let us trust his skill and thank him for his prescription."
—Sir Isaac Newton
A devout Anglican, Newton hoped to bring together science and religion. Newton worked with mathematics and physics and also did extensive work in the field of optics, a field in which he experimented extensively. He believed that the universe operated according to a set of rational, mathematical principles and that these principles could prove the existence of God, a rational being. Newton believed that God was the cause of all motion and matter, but he didn’t believe God was responsible for the behavior of matter.
Would You Believe?
Newton also spent time studying the science of alchemy. Alchemists searched for a mysterious substance that would turn ordinary metals into gold.
Newton studied and thought and formulated and determined that the behavior of matter was due to certain principles of physics that governed the universe. It was this belief in certain laws of physics that led him to develop his theory of gravity, particularly as it applies to the motion of heavenly bodies. Newton was on the verge of something truly remarkable.
Finally, in 1687, Newton put it all together in his landmark masterpiece, Philisophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy. He boasted that while he had demonstrated certain laws before, his Principia would demonstrate “the frame of the System of the World.”
Would You Believe?
His Principia indeed did just that and so laid the foundations for physics that lasted until the twentieth century. In his book, Newton outlined three main laws concerning motion, then proved that these laws could be applied to heavenly bodies in motion.
Newton became so popular after Principia that he was made president of the Royal Academy of Sciences and was knighted.
Newton’s synthesis of the work of those before him and his own work presented a picture of the orderly universe ruled by laws and principles he believed existed. After the publication of Principia, Newton grew famous, particularly in England; his ideas took a little longer to become popular on the continent.