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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
IT has been said that the history of Sir Isaac Newton is also the history of science; yet the character of his life and work does not entirely exclude him from the category of men of letters. While his great book the ‘Principia’ is written in Latin and treats of mathematics, its tremendous scope and magnificent revelations entitle it to be placed without incongruity among those works which, like ‘Paradise Lost’ or the ‘Divine Comedy,’ have widened men’s outlook into the universe. Milton and Dante dealt with the spiritual order of creation. Sir Isaac Newton with the material; yet to those who perceive an almost mystical significance in numbers,—to whom mathematics are, in a sense, gateways to the unseen,—the author of the ‘Principia’ and of the ‘Treatise on Optics’ will seem scarcely less a teacher than the poets.  1
  The life of Sir Isaac Newton, in its harmony, in the smoothness of its course, in the perfection of its development, seems singularly expressive of the science to which it was dedicated. From the time when as a village boy he made water-wheels and kite-lanterns for his companions, to the hour when full of years and honors he passed away, the life of Newton was a series of orderly progresses towards a fixed goal.  2
  He was born in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, on December 25th, 1642. His father, who had died before his birth, had been lord and farmer of the little manor of Woolsthorpe. Newton’s mother designed that he should perform the same office, removing him from Grantham School for this purpose when he was about fifteen years old. Newton soon showed that the yeoman’s life was not congenial to him. He would read a book under a hedge, or construct a water-wheel for the meadow brook, while the sheep strayed and the cattle were treading down the corn. He was therefore sent back to the school, where he had already earned a reputation for industry. If the legend be true, his first stimulus to study was a well-directed kick in the stomach delivered by the boy next above him in class. It was characteristic of his gentle nature that the only path of revenge open to him was through his superior intellect. From Grantham School, Newton went to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the year 1660. His mathematical genius soon manifested itself. About the year 1663 he invented the formula known as the Binomial Theorem, by which he afterwards established his method of fluxions. He had been admitted to Cambridge as a subsizar. He became a scholar in 1664, and in 1665 he took his degree as Bachelor of Arts. In 1667 he was made Junior Fellow, and in 1668 he took his Master of Arts degree, and was appointed to a Senior Fellowship. In 1669 he became Lucasian professor of mathematics. In the eight years between Newton’s admission to the University and his promotion to this chair, the germs of his great discoveries had come into existence. During his long after life they were but brought to a perfect development. The keystone of the ‘Principia,’ the principle of Universal Gravitation,—that every particle of matter is attracted by or gravitates to every other particle of matter with a force inversely proportional to the squares of their distances,—this principle had suggested itself to Newton as early as 1666; but the great work in which it was embodied was not presented to the Royal Society until 1687. The ‘Treatise on Optics’ was based on Newton’s Cambridge experiments with the prism and with the telescope, which had led to his being made a member of the Royal Society in 1672. He was obliged to contend with the most noted scientists of his time for the principle of this book,—that light is not homogeneous but consists of rays, some of which are more refrangible than others. His triumph was as much a matter of course as the workings of natural law. His contemporaries accepted his conclusions when they realized that he was more deeply in the secret of the universe than any man had ever been.  3
  The honors accorded to him were numerous. In 1688 he was elected by his university to the Convention Parliament. In 1696 he was made Warden, and in 1699 Master of the Mint. In 1701 he was again returned to Parliament. He was made president of the Royal Society in 1703. In 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne. Upon his death in 1727, he was buried in Westminster Abbey in the state befitting his princely endowments.  4
  The words of Newton shortly before his death, that he seemed to himself “like a boy playing on the sea-shore, diverting himself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before him,” are significant of his habitual humility and reverence. His soul was childlike in the presence of mysteries to which he held one key. His bequests to posterity are not only his stupendous discoveries, but the example of the scientific temper of mind which is positive rather than negative, and which seeks a spiritual order behind the veil of matter.  5

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