Introducing Mathematicians from History 9 : Isaac Newton

In todays distance learning Maths blog an Oxford Home Schooling tutor looks at the life and work of Isaac Newton.

Isaac Newton is probably the most famous British mathematician. He was born in Lincolnshire in 1643 and spent most of his adult life in Cambridge.

Why is he famous?

Newton’s most famous work was a book called Philosophiae Naturalis Pricipia Mathematica or “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”. This is basically a book about how gravity acts on objects.

Unusual facts

Newton is famously supposed to have discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head. Some people say this is just a myth but you can visit trees in several places which are claimed to be “the” tree.

His work on calculus (a method for finding maxima and minima) caused him to be involved in a dispute with another mathematician called Leibniz over who invented it first. Most historians now believe calculus was actually discovered by them both independently and, while Leibniz’s notation is commonly used in Pure Mathematics today, Newton’s very different notation is often used in Mechanics and Physics.

Newton died in 1727 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. It is thought that he may have suffered from mercury poisoning in later life due to various experiments he had carried out as traces of mercury were found in his hair after his death.

Links to modern mathematics

Newtonian Mechanics is still studied today – his laws of motion are about force, velocity and acceleration. Much of it has been superseded by the work of Albert Einstein but, when studying motion on Earth for example, his laws are still very good approximations to what we see happen in real life.

Debby Gill


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