10/29/12 - isaac newton's childhood

In today's selection -- a timely excerpt for today's "helicopter parents." Isaac Newton, who along with Albert Einstein is considered the greatest genius in the history of Western science, suffered a childhood of adversity and neglect. His mother preferred he become a farmer because she needed the help:

"Galileo died in January 1642; on Christmas Day that year, [Isaac] Newton was born.

"By 1642, nearly a century had passed since the publication of [Nicolaus] Copernicus' [heretical] On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, and the intellectual world into which Newton was born was very different from that with which Copernicus had had to struggle. Kepler's three laws of planetary movement provided a satisfactory account of the ways planets behaved, and Galileo's laws of free fall and of projectile motion (with its concept of inertia) not only demolished the arguments against the notion that the Earth moved but also knocked Aristotle off his pedestal and helped to make physics an experimental science. Newton would produce an extraordinarily elegant explanation of all those five laws by showing how they depended on three very simple laws of motion and one very simple law of gravitational attraction; but he first had to survive a childhood as fraught as [Johannes] Kepler's."

"His 36-year-old father, who owned Woolsthorpe Manor -- a modest stone farmhouse in Lincolnshire -- and was a successful (though illiterate) yeoman farmer, died unexpectedly nearly three months before Isaac was born. The birth was premature, and Isaac himself was later told that when he was born:

'he was so little they could put him into a quart pot & so weakly that he was forced to have a bolster all round his neck to keep it on his shoulders and so little likely to live that when two women were sent to ... North Witham for something for him they sat down on a stile by the way and said there was no occasion for making haste for they were sure the child would be dead before they could get back.'

"When he was three his mother married an elderly widower neighbor, the rector of North Witham, and moved to his rectory, leaving the young Isaac at Woolsthorpe to be looked after by his maternal grandparents, for whom he never expressed much affection. As a young child, he went to two local 'dame schools', and when he was 11 his stepfather died and his mother returned to Woolsthorpe with three children from her second marriage. A year later he became a pupil at the long-established King's School at Grantham -- the town that was to be the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher -- where he lived with a local apothecary in a household that included three of the apothecary's stepchildren. Isaac apparently got on well with the girl, for whom he made dolls' furniture, but not with the boys either at the apothecary's house or in school. He was keen on drawing -- birds, animals, ships, plants, Charles I, his schoolmaster -- and on making mechanical toys -- a mouse powered mill, fiery kites, clocks, a four-wheeled vehicle driven by a crank that he turned as he sat in it. And he was obsessed by sundials. As a pupil, he oscillated -- often falling behind, then shooting ahead. Apart from biblical knowledge, he learnt a great deal of Latin, a little Greek, and probably very little mathematics.

"When he was nearly 17 his mother brought him back from Grantham to help manage the farm -- a task for which he had neither interest nor aptitude, preferring to spend his time building gadgets rather than watching sheep, and, when visiting Grantham, reading books in the apothecary's house rather than trying to sell the farm's produce. Fortunately his maternal uncle, the rector of Burton Coggles about two miles from Woolsthorpe, and his discriminating schoolmaster, together persuaded his mother that farming was the wrong career for him, and he was allowed to return to school to prepare for university."


Ian Glynn


Elegance in Science: The beauty of simplicity


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2010 by Ian Glynn


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