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HISTORY OF MATHEMATICS – LECTURE 13 – MONDAY 25
TH
OCTOBER
Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton was born prematurely on Christmas Day in 1642, and was brought up by his mother after
his father died before he was born. Newton did not always demonstrate his great talent as a child, and
was described by teachers as “idle” and “inattentive”. However he demonstrated sufficient ability to be
accepted to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1661. Newton began his rapid ascent as an undergraduate at
Cambridge, and was inspired to a large degree by the arrival of Isaac Barrow (1630
‐
1677) as chair of
mathematics in 1663. Barrow was one of the leading mathematicians in England at the time, and his
research on the area bounded by curves almost led to him inventing calculus before Newton (see pages
390
‐
392), with Barrow’s tangent method strongly resembling differentiation. However the Great Plague
forced Cambridge to close for much of 1665 and 1666, and while this proved to be a very productive
period for Newton, during which he derived the binomial theorem for irrational exponents, Barrow was
called soon afterwards by King Charles II to be his chaplain. This left a vacancy, and it was on Barrow’s
recommendation that Newton became the new chair of mathematics at the age of 26.
Newton’s first lectures in his new capacity were on the subject of optics, and included the result of his
experiment in 1666 that showed white light to include all the colors of the spectrum by passing it
through a triangular prism. This contradicted the theory of the day that white light had no color, and
that colors were due to a mixture of light and darkness. Newton’s findings led him to conclude that light
of differing colors moves at different speeds, given how the “rainbow” of colors produced by the prism
took a rectangular form (an effect we call refraction
today). Newton also invented the reflecting
telescope around this time, which uses a concave mirror to concentrate the rays of light, rather than the
two lenses in the telescopes of Galileo. The reflecting telescope was met with great acclaim by the
members of the Royal Society when one of the first demonstrations was given, and it is still the
instrument of choice for serious astronomers today. (It should be noted that Newton’s relationship with
the Royal Society was not always amicable due to a long standing dispute with Robert Hooke
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This note was uploaded on 09/22/2011 for the course MAC 2311 taught by Professor Evinson during the Spring '08 term at University of Central Florida.
 Spring '08
 EVINSON
 Math, Calculus

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