Geniuses 2

Continuing this brief series, and introducing you to my first considered genius, recalling the working definition of genius as an “extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity” (see Geniuses 1), as perceived by me:

Isaac Newton would make most people’s list, so is probably the least provocative of mine.  Newton was born in eastern England’s Lincolnshire in the mid seventeenth century, son to a share cropper.  There were no signs of genius early on.  In fact, the only event recorded of his early life involved his being bullied at school.  The best he might have expected from life was to leave school at twelve and become a share cropper himself.  However, a local landowner saw potential in him and arranged and paid for him to complete his schooling (where he blossomed in his final year – as a seventeen-year-old) and so to Cambridge University.

Unfortunately, after a promising start, the Black Plague saw the university closed down and Newton sent home to the countryside.  But it was here, during the next two years, that his genius erupted.  First, after seeing a spectrum on a wall, produced by sunlight through a jug of water on his bedroom table, he was prompted to investigate the make-up of light, and he proposed that ‘white’ light must be made up of component colours.  A falling apple also prompted him to propose the presence of an attractive force between any two bodies in space – a gravitational force.  This in turn set him to realise that the moon must be held in place by the same attractive force (but didn’t fall to earth like the apple, because it was moving sideways in a circular orbit).

When Newton finally returned to Cambridge, and word of his ideas got around, he was persuaded (primarily by Edmund Haley, no less, who later used Newton’s theories to predict the return of Haley’s Comet in 1758) to write down and publish his findings, which he did in Latin (!) – the academic language of the time – in two huge volumes titled Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).  However, in attempting to prove his theories Newton realised that the Maths of the day was inadequate for his purposes, so he ‘invented’ a whole new branch of Maths (also presented in his Principia) which we know now as Calculus.

This, and his many other stunning additions to scientific and mathematical knowledge (too many to list here, although his invention of the reflecting telescope is especially impressive, but see and to British leadership (for example, he was ‘Master of the Royal Mint’ for thirty years)) established his genius beyond contest.

These, and many other details of his astonishing giftedness, struck me with awe (as a teacher of Maths and Physics).  But what lingers in my thinking above all his technical genius is the high level of curiosity that drove him.  He could never look at something without wondering why or how.  Whereas most of us, in observing an apple fall from a tree, might say, “Huh.  Look at that.  Whaddya know?”, Newton thought, “Huh.  I wonder why that apple fell vertically downwards, not sideways, or even upwards?”

To my mind, it was that curiosity and questioning mien that led him to see so much, and “creatively manifest” his insights in his published works and scientific influence, in his own time and down through the centuries; to the point where Newtonian Physics, and the Calculus, are foundational to every student’s senior Maths and Science studies today.

May the genius of Sir Isaac Newton awaken us all to the wondrous world and cosmos we share.

Ken F

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