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Brilliance & Grit: Isaac Newton

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One of the most influential scientists in history, Isaac Newton was nothing short of a badass.

But while you might be familiar with the story of him getting cracked on the head with an apple and three of his laws, you might not have learned about some of his other achievements.

Besides being undeniably brilliant, Newton was a tireless worker who understood how to assemble elements of previous scientific giants that came before him.

Today we dive into Newton’s inability to half-ass anything, and the way that his grit and determination allowed him to impact the world in so many ways.

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1. He wrote a book that not only revolutionized physics and math, but changed the scientific method.

Newton’s magnum opus, “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (often referred to as the “Principia”) is regarded as one of the most important scientific books ever written. Among other things, the three-book work stated Newton’s famous laws of motion and universal gravitation, laid the foundations of classical mechanics and used mathematical methods that would end up being the basis for calculus. However, Newton’s book did more than introduce world-changing laws; it created a new standard for the scientific method and changed the way future scientists would approach problems, build hypotheses and submit theories.

In “Principia,Newton said that every discrepancy between observation and theory—no matter how tiny—is telling us something important about the world. In his search to understand these discrepancies, Newton raised the bar for the scientific theory; while previous scientists generally only put one theory forward to account for an observation, Newton would lay out several and then give “them a full range of alternate possibilities, allowing the empirical world to select them.” Giving multiple theoretical possibilities versus only one was a massive improvement, building on work by Galileo and Christiaan Huygens.

Another gift to the scientific world within “Principia” would also be the most controversial. Newton’s method included withholding any thoughts on the reasoning for the phenomena he observed, giving only his dispassionate scientific calculations to explain it.

Instead of giving any personal thoughts on why gravity works the way it does, for instance, Newton said:

“I have not as yet been able to deduce from phenomena the reason for these properties of gravity, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction.”

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2. When the tools of the time wouldn’t suffice, Newton constructed his own

In Newton’s day, observers looking through telescopes would often see a fuzzy corona of light that made it difficult to observe celestial bodies in great detail. This distortion (chromatic aberration) was mainly due to the lenses in refracting telescopes. Newton had a theory that this distortion was caused by white light actually being composed of a spectrum of colors and that the lenses within these refracting telescopes were the cause. Wanting to prove his theory but finding himself without the necessary tools to do so, Newton decided that he’d just build his own damn telescope.

Using the ideas of Galileo and Giovanni Sagredo, Newton grounded his own lenses out of metal, polishing and perfecting the metal himself. Using this new telescope, he found that it worked without any of the distortion found on other telescopes, allowing him to view four of Jupiter’s moons as well as Venus.

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3. He got a cushy job and then took it super fucking seriously

When Newton was made Warden of the Mint in 1696 it was intended to be a quiet cushy job usually reserved for wealthy, lazy aristocrats. Newton, however, had no interest in sitting quietly.

At the time, counterfeiting in England was rampant, with around 10 percent of England’s coins being known fakes. Newton had no interest in letting these crimes go unpunished and sprang into action, immediately organizing what was then called the ‘Great Recoinage.’ This effort repossessed millions of pounds of coins and re-minted them at their correct values. The effort was so massive that it took a 500-man production line in the Tower of London over four years to complete.

But Newton was just getting started.

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Now that he’d made a serious dent in the number of fake coins on the streets, he needed to sniff out the leaders of these counterfeiting efforts and see that they were punished to the full extent of the law.

At the top of Newton’s shit list was a well-respected man named William Chaloner. Chaloner appeared to be on Newton’s side in the quest to sniff out counterfeiters, writing to the Lord’s Justices claiming to have hard evidence that men working in the mint had been selling off copies of casts. However, Newton had a hunch that Chaloner was actually the brains of the operation.

Newton presented a report to parliament detailing Chaloner’s involvement, but the case was dismissed and Chaloner again went back to pleading for a job at the mint. It was then that Newton applied his legendary energy, acquiring enough hard evidence to put Chaloner away.

Newton went undercover and quietly gathered evidence, ultimately conducting over 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, suspects and informants which led to the successful prosecution of 28 forgers, including Chaloner. Thanks to the piles of evidence and witnesses, Newton finally had Chaloner cornered with no escape. The jury only needed a few minutes to reach the verdict of guilty. A fortnight later, Chaloner was hanged.

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Newton had been one of the most active Wardens of the Mint, made huge strides in reducing the counterfeiting and helped stabilize England’s currency — all from a position that basically required him to sit, collect revenue and do nothing.

While we might not be world-class geniuses like Newton, we can apply and learn from his methods. Newton made theories based on his observations, and didn’t let the limitations of what he felt was testable affect his pursuit of his truths. Newton threw himself fully into his work, regardless of its perceived importance. By attacking each problem with this attention, he quickly grew far beyond the bounds of his peer’s expectations. Instead of just surpassing standards, Isaac Newton redefined them.

 

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