16 Strange and Interesting Sir Isaac Newton Facts

Sir Isaac Newton, english physicist and mathematician, was born on January 4, 1643, in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. Using the "old" Julien calendar, Newton's birth date is sometimes displayed as December 25, 1642*.

He is most famous for his law of gravitation that was instrumental in the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

Here are some interesting facts you may not have known about Newton.

Newton's apple by Quentin Blake

1. He wasn't expected to survive as a child

In 1642, the year that Galileo Galilei died, Isaac Newton was born prematurely on Christmas Day*. Named after his father, who died just three months before he was born, Isaac was a very small baby not expected to survive. His mother even said that Isaac was so small that he could have fit inside a quart mug.

2. He did not like his stepfather

Newton was an avid list maker and one of his preserved lists included all of the sins he felt he had committed up until the age of 19 (his age at the time). One of them included, "Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them." You can't hardly blame him, though. When Smith proposed to Isaac's mother, Isaac wasn't part of the deal. The three-year-old Isaac was sent to live with his grandmother.

3. Newton and His Apple: The True Story

The story you probably know (popularized by Voltaire, no less!) is that Sir Isaac Newton was sitting under a tree contemplating life when an apple struck him on the head, simultaneously making a light bulb about gravity go off.  

Newton himself actually said that he was staring out the window in his house when he saw an apple fall from a tree.

Purported offspring of the Newton's Apple Tree in Woolsthorpe Manor (Source: Mathematical Association of America)

Whatever happened to the tree? The King's School in Grantham, Linconshire, England, where Newton went to school, claimed to have purchased the tree and moved it to its garden. Naturally, this is a bone of contention with the Woolsthorpe Manor people who are currently in charge of the upkeep of Newton's home (now a historic site).

4. He was a stutterer

But that puts him in good company - Aristotle, Moses, Winston Churchill and Charles Darwin were also known as stutterers. 

5. His dog set his laboratory on fire, ruining 20 years of research, according to Newton

Some historians believe that Newton never even owned a dog, hypothesizing that he left a window open and a gust of wind knocked over a lit candle. But the dog story lives on — it was recorded as early as 1833 in The Life of Sir Isaac Newton. When he saw what man's best friend had done, Newton is said to have exclaimed, "O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done."

6. Newton almost became a farmer

 He was actually born in a poor farmer family. When he turned 17, his mother kept insisting that he goes to the family farm after returning from school. He did follow his mom’s order but it turned out that he was an awful farmer. So, his uncle eventually managed to persuade his mother to allow him to join Cambridge’s Trinity College.

7. He had an uncanny obsession with Bible

In fact, he believed that God had chosen him specifically to interpret the Bible. He studied it at great depths and wrote more on religion than about science or mathematics. 

He predicted that Lord Christ was crucified exactly on April 3, 33 AD. He also predicted that Apocalypse is not hitting mankind anytime sooner than 2060 AD - "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be," he explained, "but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

Newton's note with the date 2060 as the earliest possible date of the Armageddon.

8. ...but, he didn't believe in Satan or the Holy Trinity

In spite of his deep religious conviction, Newton was unorthodox when it comes to his belief of the devil, spirits and ghosts. He also assailed people who claimed to be tempted by personal demons as deluded by their own imaginations.

This might seem like a reasonable position for a man of science, but in that era, the reverse was actually true: most learned men believed in the existence of Satan, and considered Newton's view as blasphemous. (Source: Snobelen, Stephen D. (2002) Lust, Pride and Ambition: Isaac Newton and the Devil).

Newton also wrote a thesis arguing against the Council of Nicaea and the Church's doctrine on the Holy Trinity. Realizing that his position would not be accepted by the public, Newton never published this thesis in his lifetime. Indeed, it was released 27 years after his death.

9. Newton was a sizar and waited tables when he was a student at Cambridge University

Sizar is actually a term that was used to describe those undergraduate students who received a nominal financial assistance for performing lowly duties. Newton was not only a waiter but also took care of the rooms of other students.

10. He was very much into alchemy.

Newton's alchemy notes (Source: R. D. Flavin)

So, what’s alchemy? It is a pseudoscience which deals with the study of converting lead and other base metals into gold. He actually wrote 169 books on it, none of which were ever published during his lifetime because under act 1404, making gold and silver was considered a felony.

11. Newton was a big time weirdo

He purposefully stuck a blunt needle known as bodkin in his eye socket. Why did he do that? He was actually experimenting with properties of light and used himself as a guinea pig. James Gleick, author of Newton’s biography released in 2003, said that Newton did this because people at that time were not really sure whether the eyes were responsible for collecting light or creating it and Newton wanted to find that out.

12. He was secretive and he rarely published

What is not commonly known was that the majority of Newton's discoveries were made between his twenty-first and twenty-seventh years. Yet, he didn't disclose these findings to the world until years later.

A photo of Newton Investigating Light, a portrayal of Isaac Newton created by J A Houston, circa 1879. 

Take for example Newton's work on optics: his ground-breaking experiments on the nature of light (that ordinary white light is actually composed of a spectrum of colors) were done by 1669, when Newton was just 27 years old. Yet, he first presented his findings to the British Royal Society three years later, when he was elected as a fellow. (Source: Hart, Michael. (1998) The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History).

Newton's secretiveness had led to many quarrels over credit. For example, when mathematician Gottfried Leibniz published his work on calculus, Newton countered that he had invented methods for that branch of math many years previously but didn't publish, thus sparking one of the largest controversy in mathematics

13. Newton once became a politician and served for 1 complete year

Newton was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1689 and served for exactly one year. During that time, he said one and only one sentence during the lengthy proceedings: he asked a nearby usher to close an open, drafty window!

14. Newton battled counterfeiters

The Master of the Mint honored by the Mint, almost three centuries later. 

In 1696, Newton became a warden of the London Mint and was given the task of stopping counterfeiting, which was rampant in those days:

He gathered much of that evidence himself, disguised, while he hung out at bars and taverns. For all the barriers placed to prosecution, and separating the branches of government, English law still had ancient and formidable customs of authority. Newton was made a justice of the peace and between June 1698 and Christmas 1699 conducted some 200 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers and suspects. Newton won his convictions and in February 1699, he had ten prisoners waiting to be executed. He later ordered all records of his interrogations to be destroyed.

15. Newton was an extremely lonely man

This became evident because he easily picked up fights. Some people believe that he suffered from autism or perhaps bipolar disorder but there is actually no way to validate those claims.

He never married and it is believe he never have had sex. But there is absolutely no way to verify this and even if he enjoyed some “behind closed doors ‘we time’” with someone, we will never come to know that.

16. He faced two nervous breakdowns

One was in 1678 when he was in the middle of a dispute regarding his optics theory and the other was in 1693. While Newton blames lack of sleep for the second breakdown, a 1979 examination of Newton's hair showed astronomical amounts of mercury, probably as a result of all of his alchemy experiments. Too much mercury can drive a man mad, of course, and that may have been exactly what it did to Isaac Newton. Then again, maybe not: the other side of the argument is that Newton never lost his hair (although he was gray by the age of 30 and attributed it to his studies with mercury) and never had bleeding gums, two very prominent symptoms of mercury poisoning. 

It was after this second breakdown that his scientific research ended.

Take a moment to celebrate some of the amazing achievements from people who had virtually no education at all.

He isn’t the one to let something like being the fourth richest man on the planet stop him from getting a good deal.

There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics, but there are equivalents...