How Isaac Newton Worked

Newton as a Student and Scholar

After a mixed record as a high-school level student, Newton proved himself dreadful at farming and overseeing his family's affairs, though he may have failed intentionally so that he wouldn't have to carry that responsibility [source: The Newton Project]. His failure allowed him to continue his education. He eventually went on to study at Cambridge, paying his way through school by acting as a servant to wealthy students and starting a small loan business.

While at Cambridge, Newton paid scant attention to the required curriculum, instead following his own intellectual whims. Because of his lack of success there, the Cambridge faculty thought that he showed little promise. But Isaac Barrow, a noted scholar and mathematician, discovered Newton's talents and mentored him.


From 1665 to 1667, Newton left Cambridge after an outbreak of the plague closed the university. Popular conception has it that he made many of his most important discoveries during one year in this period -- sometimes called his annus mirabilis, or "year of miracles." It's more likely that at least some of these major discoveries came later, over an extended period of time and with important subsequent breakthroughs and revisions of his original ideas [source: MathPages]. But the great man himself probably propagated this myth of the year of miracles. When Newton became involved in various conflicts with other scientists over claims of discoveries, it was to his advantage to claim that he had made these breakthroughs years before.

As a fellow at Cambridge's Trinity College, Newton was known as obsessively devoted to his work, rarely allowing himself any time for relaxation. His lack of sleep wore him down, but he wasn't a complete shut-in. He actively corresponded with other scientists and counted a select few among his friends.

Newton is highly regarded not only for his discoveries but also for the quality and rigor of his experiments. He was incredibly precise, took careful notes and paid close attention to evidence. He concocted theories from the information at hand and then created reasonable experiments with which to test them. He was also far ahead of his time in how he considered data, for example, by calculating averages when he had several different measurements for the same phenomenon. Believe it or not, this wasn't a common practice then. His scientific method became the standard from which future scientists would draw.

­Now that we've laid some of the groundwork for who Newton was as a person and as a scholar, let's consider some of his major accomplishments.