What is Uranus Named After?

The period known as the Scientific Revolution (ca. 16th to the 18th century) was a time of major scientific upheaval. In addition to advances made in mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences, several major discoveries were made in the field of astronomy. Because of this, our understanding of the size and structure of the Solar System was forever revolutionized.

Consider the discovery of Uranus. While this planet had been viewed on many occasions by astronomers in the past, it was only with the birth of modern astronomy that its true nature came to be understood. And with William Herschel‘s discovery in the 18th century, the planet would come to be officially named and added to the list of known Solar Planets.

Past Observations:

The first recorded instance of Uranus being spotted in the night sky is believed to date back to the 2nd century BCE. At this time, Hipparchos – the Greek astronomer, mathematician and founder of trigonometry – apparently recorded the planet as a star in his star catalogue (completed in 129 BCE).

Large floor mosaic from a Roman villa in Sassoferrato, Italy (ca. 200–250 CE). Aion (Uranus), the god of eternity, stands above Tellus (Gaia) and her four children (the seasons). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Bibi Saint-Poi

This catalog was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest, which became the definitive source for Islamic astronomers and for scholars in Medieval Europe for over one-thousand years. During the 17th and 18th centuries, multiple recorded sightings were made by astronomers who catalogued it as being a star.

This included English astronomer John Flamsteed, who in 1690 observed the star on six occasions and catalogued it as a star in the Taurus constellation (34 Tauri). During the mid-18th century, French astronomer Pierre Lemonnier made twelve recorded sightings, and also recorded it as being a star. It was not until March 13th, 1781, when William Herschel observed it from his garden house in Bath, that Uranus’ true nature began to be revealed.

Discovery:

Herschel’s first report on the object was recorded on April 26th, 1781. Initially, he described it as being a “Nebulous star or perhaps a comet”, but later settled on it being a comet since it appeared to have changed its position in the sky. When he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, he maintained this theory, but also likened it to a planet.

Replica of Herschel’s Seven-foot Reflecting Telescope, located at the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Credit: herschelmuseum.org.uk

As was recorded in the Journal of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on the occasion of his presentation:

“The power I had on when I first saw the comet was 227. From experience I know that the diameters of the fixed stars are not proportionally magnified with higher powers, as planets are; therefore I now put the powers at 460 and 932, and found that the diameter of the comet increased in proportion to the power, as it ought to be, on the supposition of its not being a fixed star, while the diameters of the stars to which I compared it were not increased in the same ratio. Moreover, the comet being magnified much beyond what its light would admit of, appeared hazy and ill-defined with these great powers, while the stars preserved that lustre and distinctness which from many thousand observations I knew they would retain. The sequel has shown that my surmises were well-founded, this proving to be the Comet we have lately observed.”

While Herschel would continue to maintain that what he observed was a comet, his “discovery” stimulated debate in the astronomical community about what Uranus was. In time, astronomers like Johann Elert Bode would conclude that it was a planet, based on its nearly-circular orbit. By 1783, Herschel himself acknowledged that it was a planet to the Royal Society.

Name and Meaning:

As he lived in England, Herschel originally wanted to name Uranus after his patron, King George III. Specifically, he wanted to call it Georgium Sidus (Latin for “George’s Star”), or the Georgian Planet. Although this was a popular name in Britain, the international astronomy community didn’t think much of it, and wanted to follow the historical precedent of naming the planets after ancient Greek and Roman gods.

These two pictures of Uranus — one in true color (left) and the other in false color — were compiled from images returned Jan. 17, 1986, by the narrow-angle camera of Voyager 2. Credit: NASA/JPL

Consistent with this, Bode proposed the name Uranus in a 1782 treatise. The Latin form of Ouranos, Uranus was the grandfather of Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon), the father of Cronos (Saturn), and the king of the Titans in Greek mythology. As it was discovered beyond the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, the name seemed highly appropriate. As he would later write in his 1784 book, “From the Newly Discovered Planet“:

“Already in the pre-read at the local Natural History Society on 12th March 1782 treatise, I have the father’s name from Saturn, namely Uranus, or as it is usually with the Latin suffix, proposed Uranus, and have since had the pleasure that various astronomers and mathematicians, cited in their writings or letters to me approving this designation. In my view, it is necessary to follow the mythology in this election, which had been borrowed from the ancient name of the other planets; because in the series of previously known, perceived by a strange person or event of modern times name of a planet would very noticeable. Diodorus of Cilicia tells the story of Atlas, an ancient people that inhabited one of the most fertile areas in Africa, and looked at the sea shores of his country as the homeland of the gods. Uranus was her first king, founder of their civilized life and inventor of many useful arts. At the same time he is also described as a diligent and skilful astronomers of antiquity … even more: Uranus was the father of Saturn and the Atlas, as the former is the father of Jupiter.”

There were some holdouts to this new name, largely in Britain, where the name Georgium Sidus remained popular. Nevertheless, Herschel’s proposal would become universally accepted by 1850. Uranus was the only planet in the Solar System named after a god from Greek mythology, rather than using the Roman counterpart’s name. 

Other Names:

While Uranus remains the widely-recognized name for the Solar System’s seventh planet (and third gas giant), other cultures have recognized it by various other names. For example in traditional Chinese astronomy, it is known as Tianwángxing, which means literally “Sky King Star”.

Uranus. Image credit: Hubble
Uranus, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Hubble

The same name is recognized in the Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese astronomical traditions. To the Aztecs (and other Nahuatl-speaking peoples), Uranus was known as “Ilhuicateocitlalli” – named after the word for “sky” (“ilhuicatl”) – and also as “Xiuhteuccitlalli”, the Aztec god of fire, day, and heat. Many other cultures recognized Uranus in their mythological traditions and assigned various names.

The discovery of Uranus was one of several that would follow from the 18th century onward. In time, Neptune, the Asteroid Belt, Ceres, Vesta, Pluto and the Kuiper Belt would be added to the mix, thus creating a model of the Solar System that would endure until the early 21st century – when new bodies were discovered beyond the orbit that Neptune that would lead to the nomenclature debate.

We have written many interesting articles on Uranus here at Universe Today. Here’s The Planet Uranus, Ten Interesting Facts About Uranus, Why is Uranus on its Side?, Tilt of Saturn, and Who Discovered Uranus?

For more information, here’s an article from the Hubble educational site about the discovery of Uranus, and here’s NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Uranus.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about Uranus. You can access it here: Episode 62: Uranus.

Sources:

Who Discovered Gravity?

Four fundamental forces govern all interactions within the Universe. They are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. Of these, gravity is perhaps the most mysterious. While it has been understood for some time how this law of physics operates on the macro-scale – governing our Solar System, galaxies, and superclusters – how it interacts with the three other fundamental forces remains a mystery.

Naturally, human beings have had a basic understanding of this force since time immemorial. And when it comes to our modern understanding of gravity, credit is owed to one man who deciphered its properties and how it governs all things great and small – Sir Isaac Newton. Thanks to this 17th century English physicist and mathematician, our understanding of the Universe and the laws that govern it would forever be changed.

While we are all familiar with the iconic image of a man sitting beneath an apple tree and having one fall on his head, Newton’s theories on gravity also represented a culmination of years worth of research, which in turn was based on centuries of accumulated knowledge. He would present these theories in his magnum opus, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), which was first published in 1687.

In this volume, Newton laid out what would come to be known as his Three Laws of Motion, which were derived from Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion and his own mathematical description of gravity.  These laws would lay the foundation of classical mechanics, and would remain unchallenged for centuries – until the 20th century and the emergence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Newton's own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition. Credit: Trinity Cambridge/Andrew Dunn
Newton’s own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition. Credit: Trinity Cambridge/Andrew Dunn

Physics by 17th Century:

The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with major breakthroughs occurring in the fields of mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. Some of the greatest developments in the period include the development of the heliocentric model of the Solar System by Nicolaus Copernicus, the pioneering work with telescopes and observational astronomy by Galileo Galilei, and the development of modern optics.

It was also during this period that Johannes Kepler developed his Laws of Planetary Motion. Formulated between 1609 and 1619, these laws described the motion of the then-known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) around the Sun. They stated that:

  • Planets move around the Sun in ellipses, with the Sun at one focus
  • The line connecting the Sun to a planet sweeps equal areas in equal times.
  • The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube (3rd power) of the mean distance from the Sun in (or in other words–of the”semi-major axis” of the ellipse, half the sum of smallest and greatest distance from the Sun).

These laws resolved the remaining mathematical issues raised by Copernicus’ heliocentric model, thus removing all doubt that it was the correct model of the Universe. Working from these, Sir Isaac Newton began considering gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

Newton’s Three Laws:

In 1678, Newton suffered a complete nervous breakdown due to overwork and a feud with fellow astronomer Robert Hooke. For the next few years, he withdrew from correspondence with other scientists, except where they initiated it, and renewed his interest in mechanics and astronomy. In the winter of 1680-81, the appearance of a comet, about which he corresponded with John Flamsteed (England’s Astronomer Royal) also renewed his interest in astronomy.

After reviewing Kepler’s Laws of Motion, Newton developed a mathematical proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector. Newton communicated these results to Edmond Halley (discoverer of “Haley’s Comet”) and to the Royal Society in his De motu corporum in gyrum.

This tract, published in 1684, contained the seed of what Newton would expand to form his magnum opus, the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. This treatise, which was published in July of 1687, contained Newton’s three laws of motion, which stated that:

  • When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  • The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as: F=ma
  • When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Together, these laws described the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it and the resulting motion, laying the foundation for classical mechanics. The laws also allowed Newton to calculate the mass of each planet, the flattening of the Earth at the poles, and the bulge at the equator, and how the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon create the Earth’s tides.

In the same work, Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis using ‘first and last ratios’, worked out the speed of sound in air (based on Boyle’s Law), accounted for the procession of the equinoxes (which he showed were a result of the Moon’s gravitational attraction to the Earth), initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more.

Newton and the “Apple Incident”:

The story of Newton coming up with his theory of universal gravitation as a result of an apple falling on his head has become a staple of popular culture. And while it has often been argued that the story is apocryphal and Newton did not devise his theory at any one moment, Newton himself told the story many times and claimed that the incident had inspired him.

In addition, the writing’s of William Stukeley – an English clergyman, antiquarian and fellow member of the Royal Society – have confirmed the story. But rather than the comical representation of the apple striking Newton on the head, Stukeley described in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life (1752) a conversation in which Newton described pondering the nature of gravity while watching an apple fall.

“…we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple…”

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint (who eventually married his niece), also described hearing the story in his own account of Newton’s life. According to Conduitt, the incident took place in 1666 when Newton was traveling to meet his mother in Lincolnshire. While meandering in the garden, he contemplated how gravity’s influence extended far beyond Earth, responsible for the falling of apple as well as the Moon’s orbit.

Similarly, Voltaire wrote n his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) that Newton had first thought of the system of gravitation while walking in his garden and watching an apple fall from a tree. This is consistent with Newton’s notes from the 1660s, which show that he was grappling with the idea of how terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon.

Sapling of the reputed original tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to consider gravitation. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Loodog
Sapling of the reputed original tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to consider gravitation. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Loodog

However, it would take him two more decades to fully develop his theories to the point that he was able to offer mathematical proofs, as demonstrated in the Principia. Once that was complete, he deduced that the same force that makes an object fall to the ground was responsible for other orbital motions. Hence, he named it “universal gravitation”.

Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims their school purchased the original tree, uprooted it, and transported it to the headmaster’s garden some years later. However, the National Trust, which holds the Woolsthorpe Manor (where Newton grew up) in trust, claims that the tree still resides in their garden. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there.

Newton’s work would have a profound effect on the sciences, with its principles remaining canon for the following 200 years. It also informed the concept of universal gravitation, which became the mainstay of modern astronomy, and would not be revised until the 20th century – with the discovery of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

We have written many interesting articles about gravity here at Universe Today. Here is Who was Sir Isaac Newton?, Who Was Galileo Galilei?, What Is the Force of Gravity?, and What is the Gravitational Constant?

Astronomy Cast has some two good episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 37: Gravitational Lensing, and Episode 102: Gravity,

Sources:

Who was Stephen Hawking?

When we think of major figures in the history of science, many names come to mind. Einstein, Newton, Kepler, Galileo – all great theorists and thinkers who left an indelible mark during their lifetime. In many cases, the full extent of their contributions would not be appreciated until after their death. But those of us that are alive today are fortunate to have a great scientist among us who made considerable contributions – Dr. Stephen Hawking.

Considered by many to be the “modern Einstein”, Hawking’s work in cosmology and theoretical physics was unmatched among his contemporaries. In addition to his work on gravitational singularities and quantum mechanics, he was also responsible for discovering that black holes emit radiation. On top of that, Hawking was a cultural icon, endorsing countless causes, appearing on many television shows as himself, and penning several books that have made science accessible to a wider audience.

Early Life:

Hawking was born on January 8th, 1942 (the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo) in Oxford, England. His parents, Frank and Isobel Hawking, were both students at Oxford University, where Frank studied medicine and Isobel studied philosophy, politics and economics. The couple originally lived in Highgate, a suburb of London, but moved to Oxford to get away from the bombings during World War II and give birth to their child in safety. The two would go on to have two daughters, Philippa and Mary, and one adopted son, Edward.

The family moved again in 1950, this time to St. Albans, Hertfordshire, because Stephen’s father became the head of parasitology at the National Institute for Medical Research (now part of the Francis Crick Institute). While there, the family gained the reputation for being highly intelligent, if somewhat eccentric. They lived frugally, living in a large, cluttered and poorly maintained house, driving around in a converted taxicab, and constantly reading (even at the dinner table).

Stephen Hawking as a young man. Credit: gazettereview.com
Stephen Hawking as a young man. Credit: gazettereview.com

Education:

Hawking began his schooling at the Byron House School, where he experienced difficulty in learning to read (which he later blamed on the school’s “progressive methods”.) While in St. Albans, the eight-year-old Hawking attended St. Albans High School for Girls for a few months (which was permitted at the time for younger boys). In September of 1952, he was enrolled at Radlett School for a year, but would remain at St. Albans for the majority of his teen years due the family’s financial constraints.

While there, Hawking made many friends, with whom he played board games, manufactured fireworks, model airplanes and boats, and had long discussions with on subjects ranging from religion to extrasensory perception. From 1958, and with the help of the mathematics teacher Dikran Tahta, Hawking and his friends built a computer from clock parts, an old telephone switchboard and other recycled components.

Though he was not initially academically successfully, Hawking showed considerable aptitude for scientific subjects and was nicknamed “Einstein”. Inspired by his teacher Tahta, he decided to study mathematics at university. His father had hoped that his son would attend Oxford and study medicine, but since it was not possible to study math there at the time, Hawking chose to study physics and chemistry.

Stephen Hawking (holding the handkerchief) and the Oxford Boat Club. Credit: focusfeatures.com
Stephen Hawking (holding the handkerchief) and the Oxford Boat Club. Credit: focusfeatures.com

In 1959, when he was just 17, Hawking took the Oxford entrance exam and was awarded a scholarship. For the first 18 months, he was bored and lonely, owing to the fact that he was younger than his peers and found the work “ridiculously easy”. During his second and third year, Hawking made greater attempts to bond with his peers and developed into a popular student, joining the Oxford Boat Club and developing an interest in classical music and science fiction.

When it came time for his final exam, Hawking’s performance was lackluster. Instead of answering all the questions, he chose to focus on theoretical physics questions and avoided any that required factual knowledge. The result was a score that put him on the borderline between first- and second-class honors. Needing a first-class honors for his planned graduate studies in cosmology at Cambridge, he was forced to take a via (oral exam).

Concerned that he was viewed as a lazy and difficult student, Hawking described his future plans as follows during the viva: “If you award me a First, I will go to Cambridge. If I receive a Second, I shall stay in Oxford, so I expect you will give me a First.” However, Hawking was held in higher regard than he believed, and received a first-class BA (Hons.) degree, thus allowing him to pursue graduate work at Cambridge University in October 1962.

Hawking on graduation day in 1962. Credit: telegraph.co.uk
Hawking on graduation day in 1962. Credit: telegraph.co.uk

Hawking experienced some initial difficulty during his first year of doctoral studies. He found his background in mathematics inadequate for work in general relativity and cosmology, and was assigned Dennis William Sciama (one of the founders of modern cosmology) as his supervisor, rather than noted astronomer Fred Hoyle (whom he had been hoping for).

In addition, it was during his graduate studies that Hawking was diagnosed with early-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). During his final year at Oxford, he had experienced an accident where he fell down a flight of stairs, and also began experiencing difficulties when rowing and incidents of slurred speech. When the diagnosis came in 1963, he fell into a state of depression and felt there was little point in continuing his studies.

However, his outlook soon changed, as the disease progressed more slowly than the doctors had predicted – initially, he was given two years to live. Then, with the encouragement of Sciama, he returned to his work, and quickly gained a reputation for brilliance and brashness. This was demonstrated when he publicly challenged the work of noted astronomer Fred Hoyle, who was famous for rejecting the Big Bang theory, at a lecture in June of 1964.

Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde on their wedding day, July 14, 1966. Credit: telegraph.co.uk
Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde on their wedding day, July 14, 1966. Credit: telegraph.co.uk

When Hawking began his graduate studies, there was much debate in the physics community about the prevailing theories of the creation of the universe: the Big Bang and the Steady State theories. In the former, the universe was conceived in a gigantic explosion, in which all matter in the known universe was created. In the latter, new matter is constantly created as the universe expands. Hawking quickly joined the debate.

Hawking became inspired by Roger Penrose’s theorem that a spacetime singularity – a point where the quantities used to measure the gravitational field of a celestial body become infinite – exists at the center of a black hole. Hawking applied the same thinking to the entire universe, and wrote his 1965 thesis on the topic. He went on to receive a research fellowship at Gonville and Caius College and obtained his PhD degree in cosmology in 1966.

It was also during this time that Hawking met his first wife, Jane Wilde. Though he had met her shortly before his diagnosis with ALS, their relationship continued to grow as he returned to complete his studies. The two became engaged in October of 1964 and were married on July 14th, 1966. Hawking would later say that his relationship with Wilde gave him “something to live for”.

Scientific Achievements:

In his doctoral thesis, which he wrote in collaboration with Penrose, Hawking extended the existence of singularities to the notion that the universe might have started as a singularity. Their joint essay – entitled, “Singularities and the Geometry of Space-Time” – was the runner-up in the 1968 Gravity Research Foundation competition and shared top honors with one by Penrose to win Cambridge’s most prestigious Adams Prize for that year.

In 1970, Hawking became part of the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholars visiting professorship program, which allowed him to lecture at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It was during this time that he and Penrose published a proof that incorporated the theories of General Relativity and the physical cosmology developed by Alexander Freidmann.

Based on Einstein’s equations, Freidmann asserted that the universe was dynamic and changed in size over time. He also asserted that space-time had geometry, which is determined by its overall mass/energy density. If equal to the critical density, the universe has zero curvature (i.e. flat configuration); if it is less than critical, the universe has negative curvature (open configuration); and if greater than critical, the universe has a positive curvature (closed configuration)

According to the Hawking-Penrose singularity theorem, if the universe truly obeyed the models of general relativity, then it must have begun as a singularity. This essentially meant that, prior to the Big Bang, the entire universe existed as a point of infinite density that contained all of the mass and space-time of the universe, before quantum fluctuations caused it to rapidly expand.

Per the Friedmann equations, the geometry of the universe is determined by its overall mass/energy density. If equal to the critical density, ?0 the universe has zero curvature (flat configuration). If less than critical, the universe has negative curvature (open configuration). If greater than critical, the universe has positive curvature (closed configuration). Image credit: NASA/GSFC
Per the Friedmann equations, the geometry of the universe is determined by its overall mass/energy density, and can have either flat, negative, or positive curvature. Credit: NASA/GSFC

Also in 1970, Hawking postulated what became known as the second law of black hole dynamics. With James M. Bardeen and Brandon Carter, he proposed the four laws of black hole mechanics, drawing an analogy with the four laws of thermodynamics.

These four laws stated that – for a stationary black hole, the horizon has constant surface gravity; for perturbations of stationary black holes, the change of energy is related to change of area, angular momentum, and electric charge; the horizon area is, assuming the weak energy condition, a non-decreasing function of time; and that it is not possible to form a black hole with vanishing surface gravity.

In 1971, Hawking released an essay titled “Black Holes in General Relativity” in which he conjectured that the surface area of black holes can never decrease, and therefore certain limits can be placed on the amount of energy they emit. This essay won Hawking the Gravity Research Foundation Award in January of that year.

In 1973, Hawking’s first book, which he wrote during his post-doc studies with George Ellis, was published. Titled, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, the book describes the foundation of space itself and the nature of its infinite expansion, using differential geometry to examine the consequences of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Hawking was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1974, a few weeks after the announcement of Hawking radiation (see below). In 1975, he returned to Cambridge and was given a new position as Reader, which is reserved for senior academics with a distinguished international reputation in research or scholarship.

The mid-to-late 1970s was a time of growing interest in black holes, as well as the researchers associated with them. As such, Hawking’s public profile began to grow and he received increased academic and public recognition, appearing in print and television interviews and receiving numerous honorary positions and awards.

In the late 1970s, Hawking was elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, an honorary position created in 1663 which is considered one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world. Prior to Hawking, its former holders included such scientific greats as Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Larmor, Charles Babbage, George Stokes, and Paul Dirac.

His inaugural lecture as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics was titled: “Is the end in sight for Theoretical Physics”. During the speech, he proposed N=8 Supergravity – a quantum field theory which involves gravity in 8 supersymmetries – as the leading theory to solve many of the outstanding problems physicists were studying.

Hawking’s promotion coincided with a health crisis which led to Hawking being forced to accept some nursing services at home. At the same time, he began making a transition in his approach to physics, becoming more intuitive and speculative rather than insisting on mathematical proofs. By 1981, this saw Hawking begin to focus his attention on cosmological inflation theory and the origins of the universe.

Inflation theory – which had been proposed by Alan Guth that same year – posits that following the Big Bang, the universe initially expanded very rapidly before settling into to a slower rate of expansion. In response, Hawking presented work at the Vatican conference that year, where he suggested that their might be no boundary or beginning to the universe.

During the summer of 1982, he and his colleague Gary Gibbons organized a three-week workshop on the subject titled “The Very Early Universe” at Cambridge University. With Jim Hartle, an American physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, he proposed that during the earliest period of the universe (aka. the Planck epoch) the universe had no boundary in space time.

In 1983, they published this model, known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Among other things, it asserted that before the Big Bang, time did not exist, and the concept of the beginning of the universe is therefore meaningless. It also replaced the initial singularity of the Big Bang with a region akin to the North Pole which (similar to the real North Pole) one cannot travel north of because it is a point where lines meet that has no boundary.

This proposal predicted a closed universe, which had many existential implications, particularly about the existence of God. At no point did Hawking rule out the existence of God, choosing to use God in a metaphorical sense when explaining the mysteries of the universe. However, he would often suggest that the existence of God was unnecessary to explain the origin of the universe, or the existence of a unified field theory.

In 1982, he also began work on a book that would explain the nature of the universe, relativity and quantum mechanics in a way that would be accessible to the general public. This led him to sign a contract with Bantam Books for the sake of publishing A Brief History of Time, the first draft of which he completed in 1984.

After multiple revisions, the final draft was published in 1988, and was met with much critical acclaim. The book was translated into multiple languages, remained at the top of bestseller lists in both the US and UK for months, and ultimately sold an estimated 9 million copies. Media attention was intense, and Newsweek magazine cover and a television special both described him as “Master of the Universe”.

Further work by Hawking in the area of arrows of time led to the 1985 publication of a paper theorizing that if the no-boundary proposition were correct, then when the universe stopped expanding and eventually collapsed, time would run backwards. He would later withdraw this concept after independent calculations disputed it, but the theory did provide valuable insight into the possible connections between time and cosmic expansion.

During the 1990’s, Hawking continued to publish and lecture on his theories regarding physics, black holes and the Big Bang. In 1993, he co-edited a book with Gary Gibbons on on Euclidean quantum gravity, a theory they had been working on together in the late 70s. According to this theory, a section of a gravitational field in a black hole can be evaluated using a functional integral approach, such that it can avoid the singularities.

That same year, a popular-level collection of essays, interviews and talks titled, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays was also published. In 1994, Hawking and Penrose delivered a series of six lectures at Cambridge’s Newton Institute, which were published in 1996 under the title “The Nature of Space and Time“.

It was also in 1990s that major developments happened in Hawking’s personal life. In 1990, he and Jane Hawking commenced divorce proceedings after many years of strained relations, owing to his disability, the constant presence of care-givers, and his celebrity status. Hawking remarried in 1995 to Elaine Mason, his caregiver of many years.

Stephen Hawking lectured regularly throughout the 90s and 2000s. Credit: educatinghumanity.com
Stephen Hawking lectured regularly throughout the 90s, many of which were collected and published in “The Nature of Space and Time” in 1996. Credit: educatinghumanity.com

In the 2000s, Hawking produced many new books and new editions of older ones. These included The Universe in a Nutshell (2001), A Briefer History of Time (2005), and God Created the Integers (2006). He also began collaborating with Jim Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to produce new cosmological theories.

Foremost of these was Hawking’s “top-down cosmology”, which states that the universe had not one unique initial state but many different ones, and that predicting the universe’s current state from a single initial state is therefore inappropriate. Consistent with quantum mechanics, top-down cosmology posits that the present “selects” the past from a superposition of many possible histories.

In so doing, the theory also offered a possible resolution of the “fine-tuning question”, which addresses the possibility that life can only exist when certain physical constraints lie within a narrow range. By offering this new model of cosmology, Hawking opened up the possibility that life may not be bound by such restrictions and could be much more plentiful than previously thought.

In 2006, Hawking and his second wife, Elaine Mason, quietly divorced, and Hawking resumed closer relationships with his first wife Jane, his children (Robert, Lucy and Timothy), and grandchildren. In 2009, he retired as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, which was required by Cambridge University regulations. Hawking has continued to work as director of research at the Cambridge University Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics ever since, and has made no indication of retiring.

“Hawking Radiation” and the “Black Hole Information Paradox”:

In the early 1970s, Hawking’s began working on what is known as the “no-hair theorem”. Based on the Einstein-Maxwell equations of gravitation and electromagnetism in general relativity, the theorem stated that all black holes can be completely characterized by only three externally observable classical parameters: mass, electric charge, and angular momentum.

In this scenario, all other information about the matter which formed a black hole or is falling into it (for which “hair’ is used as a metaphor), “disappears” behind the black-hole event horizon, and is therefore preserved but permanently inaccessible to external observers.

In 1973, Hawking traveled to Moscow and met with Soviet scientists Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich and Alexei Starobinsky. During his discussions with them about their work, they showed him how the uncertainty principle demonstrated that black holes should emit particles. This contradicted Hawking’ second law of black hole thermodynamics (i.e. black holes can’t get smaller) since it meant that by losing energy they must be losing mass.

What’s more, it supported a theory advanced by Jacob Bekenstein, a graduate student of John Wheeler University, that black holes should have a finite, non-zero temperature and entropy. All of this contradicted the “no-hair theorem” about black boles. Hawking revised this theorem shortly thereafter, showing that when quantum mechanical effects are taken into account, one finds that black holes emit thermal radiation at a temperature.

From 1974 onward, Hawking presented Bekenstein’s results, which showed that black holes emit radiation. This came to be known as “Hawking radiation”, and was initially controversial. However, by the late 1970s and following the publication of further research, the discovery was widely accepted as a significant breakthrough in theoretical physics.

However, one of the outgrowths of this theory was the likelihood that black holes gradually lose mass and energy. Because of this, black holes that lose more mass than they gain through other means are expected to shrink and ultimately vanish – a phenomena which is known as black hole “evaporation”.

In 1981, Hawking proposed that information in a black hole is irretrievably lost when a black hole evaporates, which came to be known as the “Black Hole Information Paradox”. This states that physical information could permanently disappear in a black hole, allowing many physical states to devolve into the same state.

This was controversial because it violated two fundamental tenets of quantum physics. In principle, quantum physics tells us that complete information about a physical system – i.e. the state of its matter (mass, position, spin, temperature, etc.) – is encoded in its wave function up to the point when that wave function collapses. This in turn gives rise to two other principles.

The first is Quantum Determinism, which states that – given a present wave function – future changes are uniquely determined by the evolution operator. The second is Reversibility, which states that the evolution operator has an inverse, meaning that the past wave functions are similarly unique. The combination of these means that the information about the quantum state of matter must always be preserved.

By proposing that this information disappears once a black evaporates, Hawking essentially created a fundamental paradox. If a black hole can evaporate, which causes all the information about a quantum wave function to disappear, than information can in fact be lost forever. This has been the subject of ongoing debate among scientists, one which has remained largely unresolved.

However, by 2003, the growing consensus among physicists was that Hawking was wrong about the loss of information in a black hole. In a 2004 lecture in Dublin, he conceded his bet with fellow John Preskill of Caltech (which he made in 1997), but described his own, somewhat controversial solution to the paradox problem – that black holes may have more than one topology.

In the 2005 paper he published on the subject – “Information Loss in Black Holes” – he argued that the information paradox was explained by examining all the alternative histories of universes, with the information loss in those with black holes being cancelled out by those without. As of January 2014, Hawking has described the Black Hole Information Paradox as his “biggest blunder”.

Other Accomplishments:

In addition to advancing our understanding of black holes and cosmology through the application of general relativity and quantum mechanics, Stephen Hawking has also been pivotal in bringing science to a wider audience. Over the course of his career, he has published many popular books, traveled and lectured extensively, and has made numerous appearances and done voice-over work for television shows, movies and even provided narration for the Pink Floyd song, “Keep Talking”.

Stephen Hawking's theories on black holes became the subject of many television specials, such as . Credit: discovery.com
Stephen Hawking’s theories on black holes became the subject of television specials, such as “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” on PBS. Credit: discovery.com

A film version of A Brief History of Time, directed by Errol Morris and produced by Steven Spielberg, premiered in 1992. Hawking had wanted the film to be scientific rather than biographical, but he was persuaded otherwise. In 1997, a six-part television series Stephen Hawking’s Universe premiered on PBS, with a companion book also being released.

In 2007, Hawking and his daughter Lucy published George’s Secret Key to the Universe, a children’s book designed to explain theoretical physics in an accessible fashion and featuring characters similar to those in the Hawking family. The book was followed by three sequels – George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt (2009), George and the Big Bang (2011), George and the Unbreakable Code (2014).

Since the 1990s, Hawking has also been a major role model for people dealing with disabilities and degenerative illnesses, and his outreach for disability awareness and research has been unparalleled. At the turn of the century, he and eleven other luminaries joined with Rehabilitation International to sign the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which called on governments around the world to prevent disabilities and protect disability rights.

Professor Stephen Hawking during a zero-gravity flight. Image credit: Zero G.
Professor Stephen Hawking participating in a zero-gravity flight (aka. the “Vomit Comet”) in 2007. Credit: gozerog.com

Motivated by the desire to increase public interest in spaceflight and to show the potential of people with disabilities, in 2007 he participated in zero-gravity flight in a “Vomit Comet” – a specially fitted aircraft that dips and climbs through the air to simulate the feeling of weightlessness – courtesy of Zero Gravity Corporation, during which he experienced weightlessness eight times.

In August 2012, Hawking narrated the “Enlightenment” segment of the 2012 Summer Paralympics opening ceremony. In September of 2013, he expressed support for the legalization of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. In August of 2014, Hawking accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge to promote ALS/MND awareness and raise contributions for research. As he had pneumonia in 2013, he was advised not to have ice poured over him, but his children volunteered to accept the challenge on his behalf.

During his career, Hawking has also been a committed educator, having personally supervised 39 successful PhD students.He has also lent his name to the ongoing search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the debate regarding the development of robots and artificial intelligence. On July 20th, 2015, Stephen Hawking helped launch Breakthrough Initiatives, an effort to search for extraterrestrial life in the universe.

Also in 2015, Hawking lent his voice and celebrity status to the promotion of The Global Goals, a series of 17 goals adopted by the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit to end extreme poverty, social inequality, and fixing climate change over the course of the next 15 years.

President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the Blue Room of the White House before a ceremony presenting him and 15 others the Presidential Medal of Freedom, August 12, 2009. The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with Stephen Hawking in the Blue Room of the White House before a ceremony presenting him and 15 others the Presidential Medal of Freedom, August 12th, 2009. Credit: Pete Souza/White House photo stream

Honors and Legacy:

As already noted, in 1974, Hawking was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), and was one of the youngest scientists to become a Fellow. At that time, his nomination read:

Hawking has made major contributions to the field of general relativity. These derive from a deep understanding of what is relevant to physics and astronomy, and especially from a mastery of wholly new mathematical techniques. Following the pioneering work of Penrose he established, partly alone and partly in collaboration with Penrose, a series of successively stronger theorems establishing the fundamental result that all realistic cosmological models must possess singularities. Using similar techniques, Hawking has proved the basic theorems on the laws governing black holes: that stationary solutions of Einstein’s equations with smooth event horizons must necessarily be axisymmetric; and that in the evolution and interaction of black holes, the total surface area of the event horizons must increase. In collaboration with G. Ellis, Hawking is the author of an impressive and original treatise on “Space-time in the Large.

Other important work by Hawking relates to the interpretation of cosmological observations and to the design of gravitational wave detectors.

On 12 November Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking visited the "Collider" exhibition at London's Science Museum (Image: c. Science Museum 2013)
Peter Higgs and Stephen Hawking visiting the “Collider” exhibition at London’s Science Museum in 2013, in honor of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Credit: sciencemuseum.org.uk

In 1975, he was awarded both the Eddington Medal and the Pius XI Gold Medal, and in 1976 the Dannie Heineman Prize, the Maxwell Prize and the Hughes Medal. In 1977, he was appointed a professor with a chair in gravitational physics, and received the Albert Einstein Medal and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford by the following year.

In 1981, Hawking was awarded the American Franklin Medal, followed by a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) medal the following year. For the remainder of the decade, he was honored three times, first with the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1985, the Paul Dirac Medal in 1987 and, jointly with Penrose, with the prestigious Wolf Prize in 1988. In 1989, he was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH), but reportedly declined a knighthood.

In 1999, Hawking was awarded the Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society. In 2002, following a UK-wide vote, the BBC included him in their list of the 100 Greatest Britons. More recently, Hawking has been awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society (2006), the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor (2009), and the Russian Special Fundamental Physics Prize (2013).

Several buildings have been named after him, including the Stephen W. Hawking Science Museum in San Salvador, El Salvador, the Stephen Hawking Building in Cambridge, and the Stephen Hawking Center at Perimeter Institute in Canada. And given Hawking’s association with time, he was chosen to unveil the mechanical “Chronophage” – aka. the Corpus Clock – at Corpus Christi College Cambridge in September of 2008.

Stephen Hawking being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA's 50th anniversary. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers
Stephen Hawking being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

Also in 2008, while traveling to Spain, Hawking received the Fonseca Prize – an annual award created by the University of Santiago de Compostela which is awarded to those for outstanding achievement in science communication. Hawking was singled out for the award because of his “exceptional mastery in the popularization of complex concepts in Physics at the very edge of our current understanding of the Universe, combined with the highest scientific excellence, and for becoming a public reference of science worldwide.”

Multiple films have been made about Stephen Hawking over the years as well. These include the previously mentioned A Brief History of Time, the 1991 biopic film directed by Errol Morris and Stephen Spielberg; Hawking, a 2004 BBC drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role; the 2013 documentary titled “Hawking”, by Stephen Finnigan.

Most recently, there was the 2014 film The Theory of Everything that chronicled the life of Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. Directed by James Marsh, the movie stars Eddie Redmayne as Professor Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking.

Death:

Dr. Stephen Hawking passed away in the early hours of Wednesday, March 14th, 2018 at his home in Cambridge. According to a statement made by his family, he died peacefully. He was 76 years old, and is survived by his first wife, Jane Wilde, and their three children – Lucy, Robert and Tim.

When all is said and done, Stephen Hawking was the arguably the most famous scientist alive in the modern era. His work in the field of astrophysics and quantum mechanics has led to a breakthrough in our understanding of time and space, and will likely be poured over by scientists for decades. In addition, he has done more than any living scientist to make science accessible and interesting to the general public.

Stephen Hawking holding a public lecture at the Stockholm Waterfront congress center, 24 August 2015. Credit: Public Domain/photo by Alexandar Vujadinovic
Stephen Hawking holding a public lecture at the Stockholm Waterfront congress center, 24 August 2015. Credit: Public Domain/photo by Alexandar Vujadinovic

To top it off, he traveled all over the world and lectured on topics ranging from science and cosmology to human rights, artificial intelligence, and the future of the human race. He also used the celebrity status afforded him to advance the causes of scientific research, space exploration, disability awareness, and humanitarian causes wherever possible.

In all of these respects, he was very much like his predecessor, Albert Einstein – another influential scientist-turned celebrity who was sure to use his powers to combat ignorance and promote humanitarian causes. But what was  especially impressive in all of this is that Hawking has managed to maintain his commitment to science and a very busy schedule while dealing with a degenerative disease.

For over 50 years, Hawking lived with a disease that doctor’s initially thought would take his life within just two. And yet, he not only managed to make his greatest scientific contributions while dealing with ever-increasing problems of mobility and speech, he also became a jet-setting personality who travelled all around the world to address audiences and inspire people.

His passing was mourned by millions worldwide and, in the worlds of famed scientist and science communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson , “left an intellectual vacuum in its wake”. Without a doubt, history will place Dr. Hawking among such luminaries as Einstein, Newton, Galileo and Curie as one of the greatest scientific minds that ever lived.

We have many great articles about Stephen Hawking here at Universe Today. Here is one about Hawking Radiation, How Do Black Holes Evaporate?, why Hawking could be Wrong About Black Holes, and recent experiments to Replicate Hawking Radiation in a Laboratory.

And here are some video interviews where Hawking addresses how God is not necessary for the creation of the Universe, and the trailer for Theory of Everything.

Astronomy Cast has a number of great podcasts that deal with Hawing and his discoveries, like: Episode 138: Quantum Mechanics, and Questions Show: Hidden Fusion, the Speed of Neutrinos, and Hawking Radiation.

For more information, check out Stephen Hawking’s website, and his page at Biography.com

Who Was Sir Isaac Newton?

Isaac Newton

The 17th century was an auspicious time for the sciences, with groundbreaking discoveries being made in astronomy, physics, mechanics, optics, and the natural sciences. At the center of all this was Sir Isaac Newton, the man who is widely recognized as being one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the Scientific Revolution.

An English physicist and mathematician, Newton made several seminal contributions to the field of optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus. But it was Newton’s publication of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”), for which he is most famous. Published in 1687, this treatise laid the foundations for classical mechanics, a tradition which would dominate scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries.

Early Life:

Isaac Newton was born on January 4th, 1643, – or December 25th, 1642 according to the Julian Calendar (which was in use in England at the time) –  in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire. His father, for whom he was named, was a prosperous farmer who had died three months before his birth. Having been born prematurely, Newton was small as a child.

His mother, Hannah Ayscough, remarried when he was three to a Reverend, leaving Newton in the care of his maternal grandmother. His mother would go on to have three more children with her new husband, which became Newton’s only siblings. Because of this, Newton apparently had a rocky relationship with his stepfather and mother for some time.

William Blake's Newton (1795), depicted as a divine geometer. Credit: William Blake Archive/Wikipedia
William Blake’s Newton (1795), depicted as a divine geometer. Credit: William Blake Archive/Wikipedia

By the time Newton was 17, his mother was widowed again. Despite her hopes that Newton would become a farmer, like his father, Newton hated farming and sought to become an academic. His interests in engineering, mathematics and astronomy were evident from an early age, and Newton began his studies with an aptitude for learning and inventing that would last for the rest of his life.

Education:

Between the ages of 12 and 21, Newton was educated at The King’s School, Grantham, where he learned Latin. While there, he became the top-ranked student, and received recognition for his building of sundials and models of windmills. By 1661, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he paid his way by performing a valet’s duties (what was known as a subsizar).

During his first three years at Cambridge, Newton was taught the standard curriculum, which was based on Aristotelian theory. But Newton was fascinated with the more advanced science and spent all his spare time reading the works of modern philosophers and astronomers, such as René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Thomas Street, and Johannes Kepler.

The result was a less-than-stellar performance, but his dual focus would also lead him to make some of his most profound scientific contributions. In 1664, Newton received a scholarship, which guaranteed him four more years until he would get his Masters of Arts degree.

David Loggan's print of 1690 showing Nevile's Great Court (foreground) and Nevile's Court with the then-new Wren Library (background) — New Court had yet to be built. Credit: Cantabrigia Illustrata/Cambridge (1690)
David Loggan’s print of Trinity College, Cambridge, showing Nevile’s Great Court (foreground) and the then-new Wren Library (background). Credit: Cantabrigia Illustrata/Cambridge (1690)

In 1665, shortly after Newton obtained his B.A., the university temporarily closed due to the outbreak of the Great Plague. Using this time to study at home, Newton developed a number of ideas he had which would eventually cement to become his theories on calculus, optics and the law of gravitation (see below).

In 1667, he returned to Cambridge and was elected as a fellow of Trinity, though his performance was still considered less than spectacular. However, in time, his fortunes improved and he gained recognition for his abilities. In 1669, he received his M.A. (before he had turned 27), and published a treatise expounding on his mathematical theories for dealing with infinite series.

By 1669, he succeeded his one-time teacher and mentor Isaac Barrow – a theologian and mathematician who discovered the fundamental theorem of calculus – and became the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. In 1672, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which he would remain a part of until the end of his life.

Scientific Achievements:

While studying at Cambridge, Newton maintained a second set of notes which he entitled “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae” (“Certain Philosophical Questions“). These notes, which were the sum total of Newton’s observations about mechanical philosophy, would lead him to discover the generalized binomial theorem in 1665, and allowed him to develop a mathematical theory that would lead to his development of modern calculus.

Newton's experiment using a prism revealed that light is refracted based on color. Credit: britannica.com
Newton’s experiment using a prism revealed that light is refracted based on color. Credit: britannica.com

However, Newton’s earliest contributions were in the form of optics, which he delivered during annual lectures while holding the position of Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. In 1666, he observed that light entering a prism as a circular ray exits in the form of an oblong, demonstrating that a prism refracts different colors of light at different angles. This led him to conclude that color is a property intrinsic to light, a point which had been debated in prior years.

In 1668, he designed and constructed a reflecting telescope, which helped him prove his theory. From 1670 to 1672, Newton continued to lecture on optics and investigated the refraction of light, demonstrating that the multicoloured spectrum produced by a prism could be recomposed into white light by a lens and a second prism.

He also demonstrated that colored light does not change its properties, regardless of whether it is reflected, scattered, or transmitted. Thus, he observed that color is the result of objects interacting with already-colored light, rather than objects generating the color themselves. This is known as Newton’s theory of color.

The Royal Society asked for a demonstration of his reflecting telescope in 1671, and the organization’s interest encouraged Newton to publish his theories on light, optics and color. This he did in 1672 in a small treatise entitled Of Colours, which would later be published in a larger volume containing his theories on the “corpuscular” nature of light.

Replica of Newton's second Reflecting telescope that he presented to the Royal Society in 1672.
Replica of Newton’s second Reflecting telescope that he presented to the Royal Society in 1672. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In essence, Newton argued that light was composed of particles (or corpuscles), which he claimed were refracted by accelerating into a denser medium. In 1675, he published this theory in a treatise titled “Hypothesis of Light, in which he also posited that ordinary matter was composed of larger corpuscles and about the existence of an ether that transmitted forces between particles.

After discussing his ideas with Henry More, an English theosophist and a member of the Cambridge Platonists, Newton’s interest in alchemy was revived. He then replaced his theory of an ether existing between particles in nature with occult forces, based on Hermetic ideas of attraction and repulsion between particles. This reflected Newton’s ongoing interest in both the alchemical and scientific, for which there was no clear distinction at the time.

In 1704, Newton published all of his theories on light, optics and colors into a single volume entitled Opticks: Or, A treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light. In it, he speculated that light and matter could converted into one another through a kind of alchemical transmutation, and verged on theories of sound waves in order to explain repeated patterns of reflection and transmission.

While later physicists favored a purely wavelike explanation of light to account for the interference patterns and the general phenomenon of diffraction, their findings owed a great deal to Newton’ theories. Much the same is true of today’s quantum mechanics, photons, and the idea of wave–particle duality, which bear only a small resemblance to Newton’s understanding of light.

 This set of papers documents some of Newton's early mathematical thinking, work that would develop into his theories of calculus. The texts include extracts he made from books he was reading and various notes and calculations - often on small scraps of paper he had to hand. Credit: newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk

Excerpt from Newton’s “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae”, a collection of observations that would lead to his development of modern calculus. Credit: newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk

Though both he and Leibniz are credited with having developed calculus independently, both men became embroiled in a controversy over who discovered it first. Though Newton’s work in developing modern calculus began in the 1660s, he was reluctant to publish it, fearing controversy and criticism. As such, Newton didn’t publish anything until 1693 and did not give a full account of his work until 1704, whereas Leibniz began publishing a full account of his methods in 1684.

However, Newton earlier works in mechanics and astronomy involved extensive use of calculus in geometric form. This includes methods involving “one or more orders of the infinitesimally small” in his 1684 work, De motu corporum in gyrum (“On the motion of bodies in orbit”), and in Book I of the Principia, which he referred to as “the method of first and last ratios”.

Universal Gravitation:

In 1678, Newton suffered a complete nervous breakdown, most likely due to overwork and an ongoing feud with fellow Royal Society member Robert Hooke (see below). The death of his mother a year later caused him to become increasingly isolated, and for six years he withdrew from correspondence with other scientists, except where they initiated it.

During this hiatus, Newton renewed his interest in mechanics and astronomy. Ironically, it was thanks to a brief exchange of letters in 1679 and 1680 with Robert Hooke that would lead him to make his greatest scientific achievements. His reawakening was also due to the appearance of a comet in the winter of 1680–1681, about which he corresponded with John Flamsteed – England’s Astronomer Royal.

Thereafter, Newton began considering gravitation and its effect on the orbits of planets, specifically with reference to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. After his exchanges with Hooke, he worked out proof that the elliptical form of planetary orbits would result from a centripetal force inversely proportional to the square of the radius vector.

Newton communicated his results to Edmond Halley (discoverer of “Haley’s Comet”) and to the Royal Society in his De motu corporum in gyrum. This tract, published in 1684, contained the seed that Newton would expand to form his magnum opus, the Principia. This treatise, which was published in July of 1687, contained Newton’s three laws of motion. These laws stated that:

  • When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.
  • The vector sum of the external forces (F) on an object is equal to the mass (m) of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector (a) of the object. In mathematical form, this is expressed as: F=ma
  • When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.

Together, these laws described the relationship between any object, the forces acting upon it and the resulting motion, laying the foundation for classical mechanics. The laws also allowed Newton to calculate the mass of each planet, calculate the flattening of the Earth at the poles and the bulge at the equator, and how the gravitational pull of the Sun and Moon create the Earth’s tides.

In the same work, Newton presented a calculus-like method of geometrical analysis using ‘first and last ratios’, worked out the speed of sound in air (based on Boyle’s Law), accounted for the precession of the equinoxes (which he showed were a result of the Moon’s gravitational attraction to the Earth), initiated the gravitational study of the irregularities in the motion of the moon, provided a theory for the determination of the orbits of comets, and much more.

This volume would have a profound effect on the sciences, with its principles remaining canon for the following 200 years. It also informed the concept of universal gravitation, which became the mainstay of modern astronomy, and would not be revised until the 20th century – with the discovery of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

Newton and the “Apple Incident”:

The story of Newton coming up with his theory of universal gravitation as a result of an apple falling on his head has become a staple of popular culture. And while it has often been argued that the story is apocryphal and Newton did not devise his theory at any one moment, Newton himself told the story many times and claimed that the incident had inspired him.

In addition, the writing’s of William Stukeley – an English clergyman, antiquarian and fellow member of the Royal Society – have confirmed the story. But rather than the comical representation of the apple striking Netwon on the head, Stukeley described in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life (1752) a conversation in which Newton described pondering the nature of gravity while watching an apple fall.

“…we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees; only he, & my self. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple…”

John Conduitt, Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint (who eventually married his niece), also described hearing the story in his own account of Newton’s life. According to Conduitt, the incident took place in 1666 when Newton was traveling to meet his mother in Lincolnshire. While meandering in the garden, he contemplated how gravity’s influence extended far beyond Earth, responsible for the falling of apple as well as the Moon’s orbit.

Sapling of the reputed original tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to consider gravitation. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Loodog
Sapling of the reputed original tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton to consider gravitation, located on the grounds of Cambridge. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Loodog

Similarly, Voltaire wrote n his Essay on Epic Poetry (1727) that Newton had first thought of the system of gravitation while walking in his garden and watching an apple fall from a tree. This is consistent with Newton’s notes from the 1660s, which show that he was grappling with the idea of how terrestrial gravity extends, in an inverse-square proportion, to the Moon.

However, it would take him two more decades to fully develop his theories to the point that he was able to offer mathematical proofs, as demonstrated in the Principia. Once that was complete, he deduced that the same force that makes an object fall to the ground was responsible for other orbital motions. Hence, he named it “universal gravitation”.

Various trees are claimed to be “the” apple tree which Newton describes. The King’s School, Grantham, claims their school purchased the original tree, uprooted it, and transported it to the headmaster’s garden some years later. However, the National Trust, which holds the Woolsthorpe Manor (where Newton grew up) in trust, claims that the tree still resides in their garden. A descendant of the original tree can be seen growing outside the main gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, below the room Newton lived in when he studied there.

Feud with Robert Hooke:

With the Principia, Newton became internationally recognized and acquired a circle of admirers. It also led to a feud with Robert Hooke, with whom he had a troubled relationship in the past. With the publication of his theories on color and light in 1671/72, Hooke criticized Newton in a rather condescending way, claiming that light was composed of waves and not colors.

A historical reconstruction of what Robert Hooke looked like. Credit: Wikipedia/Rita Greer/FAL
A historical reconstruction of what Robert Hooke looked like. Credit: Wikipedia/Rita Greer/FAL

While other philosophers were critical of Newton’s idea, it was Hooke (a member of the Royal Society who had performed extensive work in optics) that stung Newton the worst. This led to the acrimonious relationship between the two men, and to Newton almost quitting the Royal Society. However, the intervention of his colleagues convinced him to stay on and the matter eventually died down.

However, with the publication of the Principia, matters once again came to a head, with Hooke accusing Newton of plagiarism. The reason for the charge had to do with the fact that earlier in 1684, Hooke had made comments to Edmond Halley and Christopher Wren (also members of the Royal Society) about ellipses and the laws of planetary motion. However, at the time he did not offer a mathematical proof.

Nevertheless, Hooke claimed that he had discovered the theory of inverse squares and that Newton had stolen his work. Other members of the Royal Society believed the charge to be unfounded, and demanded that Hooke release the mathematical proofs to substantiate this claim. In the meantime, Newton removed all reference to Hooke in his notes and threatened to withdraw the Principia from subsequent publishing altogether.

Edmund Halley, who was a friend to both Newton and Hooke, tried to make peace between the two. In time, he was able to convince Newton to insert a joint acknowledgement of Hooke’s work in his discussion of the law of inverse squares. However, this did not placate Hooke, who maintained his charge of plagiarism.

Newton's own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition. Credit: Trinity Cambridge/Andrew Dunn
Newton’s own copy of his Principia, with hand-written corrections for the second edition. Credit: Trinity Cambridge/Andrew Dunn

As time moved on, Newton’s fame continued to grow while Hooke’s continued to diminish. This caused Hooke to become increasingly embittered and more protective of what he saw as his work, and he spared no opportunity to lash out at his rival. The feud finally ended in 1703, when Hooke died and Newton succeeded him as president of the Royal Society.

Other Accomplishments:

In addition to his work in astronomy, optics, mechanics, physics and alchemy, Newton also had a keen interest in religion and the Bible. During the 1690’s, he wrote several religious tracts that addressed literal and symbolic interpretations of the Bible. For instance, his tract on the Holy Trinity – sent to the famous political philosopher and social theorist John Locke and unpublished until 1785 – questioned the veracity of 1 John 5:7, the description which the Holy Trinity is based on.

Later religious works – like The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) – also remained unpublished until after his death. In Kingdoms, he dealt with the chronology of various ancient kingdoms – the First Ages of the Greeks, ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Medeans and Persians – and offered a description of the Temple of Solomon.

In Prophecies, he addressed the Apocalypse, as foretold within the Book of Daniel and Revelations, and espoused his belief that it would take place in 2060 CE (though other possible dates included 2034 CE). In his textual criticism titled An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture (1754), he placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on April 3rd, AD 33, which agrees with a traditionally accepted date.

Portrait of Newton in 1702, painted by Godfrey Kneller. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of Newton in 1702, painted by Godfrey Kneller. Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1696, he moved to London to take up the post of warden of the Royal Mint, where he took charge of England’s great recoining. Newton would remain in this post for 30 years, and was perhaps the best-known Master of the Mint. So serious was his commitment to the role that he retired from Cambridge in 1701 to oversee the reform of England’s currency and the punishment of counterfeiters.

As Warden, and afterwards Master, of the Royal Mint, Newton estimated that 20 percent of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit. Conducting many investigations personally, Newton traveled to taverns and bars in disguise to gather evidence, and conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects – which led to the successful prosecution of 28 counterfeit coiners.

Newton was a member of the Parliament of England for Cambridge University in 1689–90 and 1701–2. In addition to being President of the Royal Society in 1703, he was an associate of the French Académie des Sciences. In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge, making him the second scientist to be knighted (after Sir Francis Bacon).

Death and Legacy:

Towards the end of his life, Newton took up residence at Cranbury Park near Winchester with his niece and her husband, where he would stay until his death. By this time, Newton had become one of the most famous men in Europe and his scientific discoveries were unchallenged. He also had become wealthy, investing his sizable income wisely and bestowing sizable gifts to charity.

Newton's tomb in Westminster Abbey. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Klaus-Dieter Keller
Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Klaus-Dieter Keller

At the same time, Newton’s physical and mental health began to decline. By the time he reached 80 years of age, he began experiencing digestive problems and had to drastically change his diet and lifestyle. His family and friends also began to worry about his mental stability, as his behavior became increasingly erratic.

Then, in 1727, Newton experienced severe pain in his abdomen and lost consciousness. He died in his sleep on the next day, on March 2oth, 1727 (Julian Calendar; or March 31st, 1727, Gregorian Calendar) at the age of 84. He was buried in tomb at Westminster Abbey. And as a bachelor, he had divested much of his estate to relatives and charities during his final years.

After his death, Newton’s hair was examined and found to contain mercury, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. Mercury poisoning has been cited as a reason for Newton’s eccentricity in later life, as well as the nervous breakdown he experienced in 1693. Isaac Newton’s fame grew even more after his death, as many of his contemporaries proclaimed him to be the greatest genius who ever lived.

These claims were not without merit, as his laws of motion and theory of universal gravitation were unparalleled in his the time. In addition to being able to bring the orbits of the planets, the Moon, and even comets into one coherent and predictable system, he also invented modern calculus, revolutionized our understanding of light and optics, and established scientific principles that would remain in use for the following 200 years.

Einstein Lecturing
Albert Einstein was one of Newton’s many admirers, claiming that to Newton, nature was “an open book, whose letters he could read without effort”. Credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer/Public Domain

In time, much of what Newton espoused would be proven wrong, thanks largely to Albert Einstein. With his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein would prove that time, distance and motion were not absolutes, but dependent on the observer. In so doing, he overturned one of the fundamental precepts of universal gravitation. Nevertheless, Einstein was one of Newton’s greatest admirers and acknowledged a great debt to his predecessor.

In addition to calling Newton a “shining spirit” (in a eulogy delivered in 1927 on the 200th anniversary of Newton’s death), Einstein also remarked that “Nature to him was an open book, whose letters he could read without effort.” On his study wall, Albert Einstein is said to have kept a picture of Newton, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.

A survey of Britain’s Royal Society was also conducted in 2005, where members were asked who had the greater effect on the history of science: Newton or Einstein. The majority of the Royal Society’s members agreed that overall, Newton had a greater impact on the sciences. Other polls conducted in recent decades have produced similar results, with Einstein and Newton vying for first and second place.

It is not easy thing to be living during one of the most auspicious times in history. Moreover, it is not easy in the midst of all of that to be blessed with an insight that will lead one to comes up with ideas that will revolutionize the sciences and forever alter the course of history. But throughout it all, Newton maintained a humble attitude, and summarized his accomplishments best with the famous words: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

We have written many articles about Isaac Newton for Universe Today. Here’s an article about what Isaac Newton discovered, and here’s an article about the inventions of Isaac Newton.

Astronomy Cast also has a wonderful episode, titled Episode 275: Isaac Newton

For more information, check out this article from the Galileo Society on Isaac Newton, and the non-profit group known as The Newton Project.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Gravity. Listen here, Episode 102: Gravity.