At number 1 in The Guardian’s list of the ten best physicists is Isaac Newton.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise to find Newton at number 1 in this list. He practically invented modern physics, one can think of him as the father of physics (with Galileo maybe being the grand-father 🙂 ). His major accomplishments include developing his law of universal gravitation, his three laws of motion which underpin the whole subject of mechanics, and his co-invention of calculus. Of course he did a lot more than this, these are just the highlights.
Newton’s brief biography
Isaac Newton was born on Christmas day in 1642, the same year that Galileo died. He was born in a small village in Lincolnshire, in the East of England, growing up on a farm. He was born three months after the death of his father. His mother remarried, and Newton was brought up by his maternal grandmother. At the age of 12 he was sent to a boarding school in Grantham (The King’s School). In 1661, age of 18, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge. He obtained his degree in 1665, and soon after the University temporarily closed due to the Great Plague. Newton returned to his home in Woolsthorpe and continued his private studies. He returned to Cambridge in 1667 as a fellow of Trinity College, and then in 1669 he was appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University.
Newton published his masterpiece, “Pilosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosopy”, usually just referred to as Principia) in 1687. It catapulted Newton to National fame, and established him as the greatest scientist of his age. Newton was one of the founding members of the Royal Society, he served as a member of Parliament for Cambridge on two occasions (1689-1690 and 1701-02), and was appointed as warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. In 1699 he became Master of the Royal Mint. He was made a Sir in 1705, and died in his sleep in 1727. In the latter 30 years of his life he became increasingly preoccupied with alchemy and religion, spending far more time on both than he did on physics and mathematics. But, the work he did from 1666 to 1704 ensured his status in the pantheon of great scientists.
Newton’s main accomplishments
It is difficult to imagine where physics would be today if it were not for the genius of Newton. Although Galileo had laid the groundwork of much of mechanics, it was Newton who set out the mathematical framework upon which calculations could be made. In addition to his universal law of gravitation, and his three laws of motion which underpin the subject of mechanics, Newton co-developed calculus, an essential tool for analysing systems which do not change smoothly, and he did important work on optics too, showing that white light was a combination of the colours of the rainbow, and developing a reflecting telescope which were, in some ways, easier to manufacture than the refracting (lens) telescopes in use at the time.
Little is known of Newton’s private life, but he was certainly a prickly character. He had a long-standing feud with Gottfried Leibniz, the co-developer of calculus, and he despised his fellow Royal Society founder member Robert Hooke with a passion. His famous quote
If I have seen further than others
It is by standing on the shoulders of giants
is thought to have been a dig at Hooke, who was a hunchback. It seems to be generally accepted today that Newton probably suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, he had few friends, and would often go for weeks without seeing anyone but his servant. He would sit motionless on the edge of his bed, having got up and then become lost in thought, only to find 8 or 10 hours later that he had not moved, so he would just get back into bed.
But, whatever his personality quirks, there is no doubting his seminal contribution to physics. I think there is little doubt that, along with Albert Einstein, the two stand head and shoulders above the other physicists in this (or any) list of the best physicists.
You can read more about Paul Dirac and the other physicists in this “10 best” list in our book 10 Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of the Universe. Click here for more details and to read some reviews.