At the age of 85, on 31st March 1727, Sir Isaac Newton died. He was the first scientist to be given the honour of being buried at Westminster Abbey in London. Considered to be the father of physics, Newton was born in Lincolnshire in 1642, coincidentally the same year that Galileo – the scientist who influenced him most – died.
Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton studied Galileo Galilee’s theories of motion. He went on to work at the University for 30 years as a Professor of Maths and while there, developed his own and Galileo’s theories further by applying them to laws of motion and gravity – the backbone of modern day physics.
Newton was also fascinated by light. He discovered that white light is made up of a range of colours, and went on to invent the first reflecting telescope; an instrument that could see tiny objects much more clearly than any telescope to date. It wasn’t just Galileo’s theories that fascinated Newton either. He was also passionate about the work of many others, including the French philosopher Descartes and the English chemist Robert Boyle. By learning as much as he could from his fellow scientists, he applied his own knowledge and skills to both light, the laws of force and – most famously – gravity.
Newton explained the pulling force of gravity by using the example of an apple falling from a tree. He used his theories to explain why things fell down to earth, rather than floated off to the side, or rose upwards into the sky. Newton used this same idea to go on to explain why the moon remained in the sky. This theory went on to become known as the ‘Universal Theory of Gravitation.’ Not only did Isaac Newton develop his gravitation theory, stating that two things will be attracted to one another and that the mass of each object will affect the amount of attraction, he also created the mathematical formulation of calculus.
Isaac Newton’s outstanding contribution to science led to him being made the president of the Royal Society in 1703. He didn’t just confine his work to science and mathematics, however. Newton was also appointed an MP in 1689, and went on to become the Master of the Royal Mint in 1700. Indeed, on 16th April 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne, in recognition for his lifetime of achievements in both politics and science. His final honour was to become the first scientist to be buried at Westminster Abbey.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.