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How Isaac Newton Worked

By: Jacob Silverman  | 

Newton's Rivals and Legacy

In his own time, Newton's ideas changed the world, and the publication of the Principia brought him into contact with most of the great minds of his age. He corresponded, debated and shared ideas with many of them.

Edmond Halley, he whom the famous comet is named after, was a vocal backer of Newton in the scientific community, but Newton also had many rivals. He had intense arguments with Robert Hooke, who accused Newton of stealing from his work. Even so, he corresponded and exchanged ideas with Hooke.

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Gottfried Leibniz, a German philosopher, mathematician and scholar of many fields, was also one of the pioneers of calculus. There was a tremendous rivalry between the two men as to who invented calculus. The two had corresponded about their work, and Newton claimed that Liebniz stole some of his calculation methods, even though Leibniz had conceived of some of the basic ideas of calculus on his own.

As old men, the two great thinkers frequently and publicly fought about their contributions to calculus. In scientific journals and letters, they rallied their supporters to their respective causes.

Newton was aggressive in trying to discredit his rival. By then well respected and quite powerful, Newton used his position as president of the Royal Society to anonymously draft a report claiming that he was the inventor of calculus. The rivalry continued until Leibniz's death.

Astronomer John Flamsteed's observations of comets contributed to some of Newton's breakthroughs about gravitation. But Flamsteed felt that Newton didn't adequately acknowledge his contributions to the Principia. He may have been justified: Newton removed all references to Flamsteed in the second edition of the Principia.

Albert Einstein revered Newton. He especially admired Newton's ability to create empirical methods that could verify the speculations of Descartes, Kepler and other thinkers, going back to the ancient Greeks. He also wrote about how Newton's innovations provided the basis for numerous subsequent discoveries: James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday's work on optics and electrodynamics, electromagnetic fields, conservation of energy and thermodynamics.

It wasn't until the early 20th century and the development of quantum and theoretical physics that scientists began moving out of Newton's long shadow. Einstein's theory of general relativity dramatically departed from Newton's ideas, but they remain important and applicable to numerous aspects of science and the physical world. His legacy as the founder of the modern scientific method, as an inventor, innovator and brilliant scholar, remains assured.

­Keep reading for more information about Isaac Newton, scientific breakthroughs and other related topics.

Originally Published: Mar 16, 2009

Issac Newton FAQ

What did Isaac Newton discover?
His law of universal gravitation laid forth the theory that all particles in the universe exerted some gravitational force. In Newton's view, gravitational force was everywhere, from an apple falling from a tree to the moon being kept in orbit by its mutual attraction with Earth.
What is Isaac Newton famous for?
Sir Isaac Newton is considered one of history's great polymaths, having contributed to the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy, theology, chemistry and biblical history.
When did Isaac Newton die?
He died on March 31, 1727.
Was Isaac Newton married?
­Newton never married and had few close friends in a relatively long life.

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