The Contributions of Isaac Newton

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"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in sight;
God said, ' let Newton be', and all was light."-- Alexander Pope

“Our society depends upon science, and yet to many of us what scientists do is a mystery” (Hall, 1992, p. XI). Sir Isaac Newton, English mathematician and physicist, was considered one of the greatest scientists in history. Without Newton’s contributions, the world would not be the same: modern technology such as computers and televisions would not exist; space and many others things would not have been explored. During his early life, Sir Isaac Newton was able to develop calculus as well as theories of natural forces and optics, based initially upon the knowledge left by his predecessors.

Born at Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he attended school, he entered Cambridge University in 1661; he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667, and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. He remained at the university as a lecturer until 1696. Of these Cambridge years, in which Newton was at the height of his creative power, he singled out 1665-1666(spent largely in Lincolnshire because of plague in Cambridge) as “the prime of my age for invention”(Newton, 1687 ).

Newton’s first major contribution to our world was his original work in mathematical fluxions. He worked in mathematics his entire career; his work in fluxions was the basis for later development. He had this to say: “I invented the method of series and fluxions in the year 1665, improved them in the year 1666, and I still have in my custody several mathematical papers written in the year 1664, 1665, 1666, some of which happen to be dated” (as cited in North, 1967, p. 11). The method of fluxions was used in mathematical problems dealing with quantities that changed (or “flowed” as Newton often said) continuously. Newton developed his methods in connection with some problems in geometry – such as the problem of determining tangents to curved lines and the problem of finding the area bounded by a curve.

The subject grew into what is now known as differential and integral calculus (Westfall, 1993).Based on his earlier work in fluxions, was development of calculus. “One of the greatest contributions to modern mathematics, science, and engineering was the invention of calculus near the end of the 17th century,” says The New Book of Popular Science (Grolier, 2000). Without the invention of calculus, many technological accomplishments, such as landing on the moon, would have very been difficult. Isaac Newton discovered the Binomial Theorem. He then formulated the principles of differential calculus. These principles could be used to express velocities and accelerations (which are simple rates of change of velocities with time). It was thus if very great value in physics, as Newton was to demonstrate (Goldstein, Hill, & Lay, 1999).

Gravity, Newton’s other great contribution, is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe, though the fundamental principles of it eluded scientists until Sir Isaac Newton was able to mathematically describe it in 1687 (Eddington, 1987). Gravity plays a serious part in everyday actions as it keeps everything on the ground; without gravity everything would be immobile unless a force was applied. The apple is one of the two curiosities (the other being the moon) that led Newton to discover the The Law of Universal Gravitation in 1666 (Keesing, 1998; Sullivat, 1998). As Newton later wrote, it was the sight of an apple falling to the ground (he was resting at Woolsthorpe because of the plague in Cambridge) that caused him to wonder if this same force was what held the moon in place (Fara, 1999; Gamow, 1962).

Because of Galileo’s work, Newton knew that an object fell to the Earth at a rate of about 9.8 meters (32 feet) per second. Thus “the apple [that] fell from the tree” fell to the Earth at about this rate. For the first basic explanation of this he assumed a linear plane, one in which all forces act in only one direction. Therefore, when the apple fell it went straight towards the center of the earth (accelerating at about 9.8 meters per second). Newton surmised that the same force that pulled the apple to Earth also pulls the moon to the Earth. But what force keeps the moon from flying into the Earth or the Earth flying into the sun (Edwards, 1967)?

To better understand this, one other aspect must first be understood. Galileo showed that all objects fall to the Earth at the same rate (the classic cannonball and feather proved this). But why? If a cannonball and a feather were both dropped from the top of the Empire State Building in a vacuum then they would both slam into the ground at the same rate. Newton realized that the moon and the apple were both being pulled towards Earth at the same rate but only one who resisted the force and stayed in its elliptical orbit (Eddington, 1987). Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that every force exerted by one object on another is equal to a force, but opposite in direction, exerted by the second object on the first (every reaction has an equal but opposite reaction). So the force of the Earth pulling the apple to the ground is proportionally the same as the force the apple exerts back on the Earth (Newton, 1687).

The many momentous events of Newton’s academic life culminated in his great work Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica published in London in 1687. This treatise, which systematizes the mechanics of the universe, is without doubt the greatest work of scientific genius that the world has yet seen. The Principia begins with the solid foundation on which the three books rest. Newton begins by defining the concepts of mass, motion (momentum), and three types of forces: inertial, impressed and centripetal. He also gives his definitions of absolute time, space, and motion, offering evidence for the existence of absolute space and motion in his famous "bucket experiment". These absolute concepts provoked great criticism from philosophers Leibnitz, Berkeley, and others, including Ernst Mach centuries later. The three Laws of Motion are proposed, with consequences derived from them. The remainder of The Principia continues in rigorously logical Euclidean fashion in the form of propositions, lemmas, corollaries and scholia. Book One, Of The Motion of Bodies, applies the laws of motion to the behavior of bodies in various orbits. Book Two continues with the motion of resisted bodies in fluids, and with the behavior of fluids themselves. From the density of air, he calculated the speed of sound waves.

In the Third Book, The System of the World, Newton applies the Law of Universal Gravitation to the motion of planets, moons and comets within the Solar System. He explains a diversity of phenomena from this unifying concept, including the behavior of Earth's tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and the irregularities in the moon's orbit.


Eddington, A. (1987). Space, time, & gravitation: An outline of the general relativity theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, P. (1967). The encyclopedia of philosophy. New York: MacMillan Company.

Fara, P. (1999). Catch a falling apple: Isaac Newton and myths of genius. Endeavour, 23, 167-171.

Gale Group Stuff (1999). Encyclopedia of world biography. New York: MacMillan Company.

Grolier Inc. (2000). Isaac Newton. The New Book of Popular Science, 1. Danbyry, Conn: Grolier.

Goldstein, L., Hill, M., & Lay, D. (1999). Encyclopedia of science and technology. London: Oxford Press.

Hall, R. (1992). Isaac Newton. London: Blackwell. Hall, R. (2001).

Isaac Newton.Retrieved March 1, 2002 from World Wide Web: http://www.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727). (1996). Retrieved March 2, 2002 from World Wide Web: newton.html.

Keesing, R. (1998). The history of Newton’s apple tree. Contemporary Physics, 39, 377-392.

Newton, I. (1687). Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. (F. Cajori, Trans.) California: University of California Press.

North, J. (1967). Isaac Newton. London: Oxford University Press.

Sullivat, R. (1998). When the apple falls. Astronomy, 26, 55-63.

Westfall, R. (1993). The life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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