This is an exclusive interview by the Ward Melville Times with the great mathematician and physicist, Sir Isaac Newton. We are very lucky to have this first hand discussion with one of the greatest minds to ever exist. Our reporter Rachel will be conducting this interview, and she is appreciative of such a great honor.
Rachel: Mr. Newton, I am so happy to have you here with me today. This is a very special treat, and I hope you don't mind too much if I pick your brain a little?
Isaac: No, no Rachel. I am quite looking forward to sharing something about myself with you. This should be quite interesting for both of us. I am happy to answer any questions you have.
Rachel: First of all, tell us something about your background. Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
Newton: Well, I was born in Lincolnshire on December 25, 1642. My mother, who was widowed twice, tried to have me manage the estate, but as we soon found out, I was no man for rural affairs. I was fortunately sent me back to grammar school, and in 1661 I went to Trinity College, Cambridge.
Rachel: Can you tell me about your studies at Trinity?
Newton: Trinity was quite an important step in my life; it was great to study among the other masters of my time and learn of those before. While there I became immersed in the work of Aristotle, and then later I discovered Descartes and other mechanical philosophers. I formulated many of my ideas in chemistry from the chemist Robert Boyle's ideas. I recorded most of my ideas and works in my set of notes which I entitled Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae which I believe to you means Certain Philosophical Questions
Rachel: Mr. Newton, How did your interest in math spring up during your time at Trinity?
Newton: Well I found that my mathematical studies started with Descartes. His Geometry which I mastered quickly helped me move into my own territory. I discovered my binomial theorem and probably my most interesting development, calculus.
Trinity was closed in 1665 due to the plague, and without any formal guidance, I was able to seek out new philosophies and mathematics, and I made them my own. During the plague years I laid the foundations of calculus as well as working in optics and gravitation.
Rachel: Wait a sec, I am lost. Binomial theorem, calculus that sounds so scary, can you explain simply what that is all about?
Newton: Yes, I believe I can a little. Well I won't lie, calculus is certainly a complex form of math, but it is also a very powerful form of analysis. First off, the binomial theorem is the expansion of the expression (x+y)n, in which n is an integer. When n is not a whole number the expression expands into an infinite numbers of terms. This was the discovery that allowed me to study infinite series. Infinite series are the sums of an infinite number of terms of some sequence.
Rachel: Could you give us an example of an infinite series?
Newton: Yes, for example 1+ ½ +½2 + ½ 3. . Etc. This would have an infinite number of terms. The value of each series is obtained by the limit of the partial sums. The series can either be convergent or divergent.
As the number of terms increases the partial sum approaches a limit of two, this would be the value of the series.
Rachel: How do you get the partial sum?
Newton: Well you see, you add the terms. The first two terms equal 1 ½ the first three is 1 3/4 . This is approaching a limit of 2. Now as I was saying before there are also divergent series, which do not have limits. The idea of infinite series covered in my binomial theorem was very important in my work on calculus. Calculus basically uses infinitesimal (the infinite series) considerations in finding the slopes of curves. There is much more on calculus but I think that is enough for you to get your feet wet.
Rachel: Wow, that is a lot to handle, but fortunately you published many books to help us through. One of your most significant books is Pricipia as it has been commonly known, can you tell us something about this work?
Newton Well, this book was my first publication of the calculus. I called it Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) (1687), often shortened to Principia Mathematica or simply "the Principia." It was important in expressing many of my ideas, and I believe it really was one of my greatest works, and I feel that it has laid a basis for the whole of your modern science. One of the important scientific generalizations involved in this work is my demonstration of the law of gravitation.
Rachel: This law of gravitation, it was really a summation of your three laws of motion and our basic principles of modern physics. Can you tell us something about this law and how it interplayed with your laws of dynamics and how was this involved with celestial mechanics?
Newton: Well celestial mechanics is a branch of astronomy pertaining to the motion of bodies in space. Dynamical astronomy deals with the forces and motions of celestial bodies and includes planetary and stellar dynamics. My laws of dynamics are described by differential equations and these laws are fundamental to celestial mechanics, of which I believe I am the founder. I found that my application of the universal law of gravitation is one example of how calculus could be applied to dynamical problems allowing me to realize the orderly motion and behavior of celestial bodies. I made a lot of discoveries through applications of my dynamics, including an explanation for tides and a theory of lunar motion. I really enjoyed studies of the planets and their orbits. I was able to further confirm my equations by observing the shape of the Earth to be oblate spheroidal, rather than prolate spheroidal, as claimed by the Cartesians.
Rachel: Well what about mechanics? What are your laws?
Newton: Well I made mechanics laws in the principia that were really quantitative description of the motion of visible bodies. The three laws were: (1) that a body remains in its state of rest unless it is compelled to change that state by force impressed on it; (2) that the change of motion is proportional to the force impressed; (3) that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Using these laws I was able to make a lot of the discoveries that I mentioned in celestial mechanics.
Rachel: So the law of gravitation, which is a summation of all these laws of motion and dynamics, what does it exactly say? Can you explain it?
Newton: It is not the simplest concept but this law with allowed me to do my work with tides and orbits, state that every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers.
Rachel: So basically what we call gravity?
Newton: Yep, Gravity as you would call it!
Rachel: That is a lot to grasp, but I have got to know, what did you discover in Optics and what you did with a prism?
Newton: In my book Optics which I published in 1704, I observed that white light could be separated by a prism into a spectrum of different colors, each is characterized by a unique refractivity, and also proposed the corpuscular theory of light. I also formulated a system of chemistry in Query 31 at the end of Optics. In this corpuscular theory, "elements" consisted of different arrangements of atoms, and atoms consisted of small, hard, billiard ball-like particles. I explained chemical reactions in terms of the chemical affinities of the participating substances. I must admit, though, that I devoted a majority of my free time later in life to fruitless alchemical experiments.
Rachel: Well Mr. Newton, we would like to thank you personally for you time, and I feel that I am very lucky to have been able to have this experience with one of the greatest mathematicians, physicists and minds of all times!
Newton: This was my pleasure Rachel, and I am very glad that I have been able to explain some of my work and my life to you. I attempted to make the concepts as simple as I could, I hope that they weren't too confusing.
Rachel: This was great, Thank you!
We would like to thank Mr. Newton for coming to talk to us. Also, we must acknowledge, although it is very obvious, that he was one of the most influential, scientists and mathematicians of all times. His work in Optics, Mechanics, and Mathematics, greatly helped shape the modern world of science.
Andrade, E. N. da C. Sir Isaac Newton. Greenwood Pub., 1979.
This book was a very good resource; It gave a lot of good background on Newton.
Hall, A. R. Isaac Newton: Adventurer in Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
This book was not as good, it was more difficult to understand, but also gave some important facts.
Westfall, R. S. The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
This book gave a lot of good information about his general contributions to mathematics.
Westfall, R. S. Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
This book, also by the same author as The Life of Isaac Newton, gave more information on his pursuits in physics and mechanics.