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Isaac Newton's Role in the Scientific Revolution

Dusty Pinholster, Nate Sullivan, Will Welch
  • Author
    Dusty Pinholster

    Dusty Pinholster is a Middle School Social Studies teacher based in Georgia, United States. She is certified in Middle Grades Social Studies, Science, Language Arts, and Math, and has 9 years of teaching experience in these fields. She has also served as a teacher-leader providing professional development to other educators. She holds a Masters Degree in Teaching Middle Grades Social Studies and Science from Mercer University, and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Emory University.

  • Instructor
    Nate Sullivan

    Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

  • Expert Contributor
    Will Welch

    Will has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Wyoming and has experience in a broad selection of chemical disciplines and college-level teaching.

Learn about Isaac Newton. Discover his contribution to the fields of science and art, and his role in the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th century. Updated: 07/07/2022

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Who was Isaac Newton?

Sir Isaac Newton, 17th century English scientist and philosopher

Black and white portrait of Sir Isaac Newton

When young children begin the study of science in school, one of the first stories they hear is often that of Sir Isaac Newton "discovering gravity" as a result of an apple falling from a tree over his head. This simple fable, though, does not encompass the revolutionary impact of Newton on the fledgling field of science during the mid-17th century. Some Isaac Newton facts include that he was born on January 4, 1643, the son of a farmer who had died several months before. As a small child, he was placed in the care of his maternal grandmother when his widowed mother remarried. When he came back into her custody at the age of nine, he was expected to take up the agricultural pursuits of his forefathers; by this point, though, his natural curiosity toward science and mechanics had already been ignited, and he was allowed to forge his own pathway into the world of academics. This change of fate would have lasting consequences not just for Newton, but for academic society as a whole. The timing of Newton's enrollment into Trinity College, Cambridge, aligned with the peak of the budding Scientific Revolution sweeping across Europe and permanently altering the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As a prominent English scientist and philosopher of this movement, Newton would eventually become one of the leading figures and lasting legends of the Scientific Revolution.

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  • 0:01 Who Was Isaac Newton?
  • 1:02 The Scientific Revolution
  • 2:36 Newton's Major Contributions
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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What was the Scientific Revolution?

The Scientific Revolution took place across Europe throughout the 16th-17th centuries, building on the ideals of the Renaissance to encourage the development of individual discovery and critical thinking. During this time, scientists, as the field of science was becoming its own unique discipline, and philosophers began to concern themselves more with questions of "how" the world and the universe work. this is in contrast to the spiritual "why" that had for so long dominated the conversation. During this time period, the practical nature of the movement led to the development of the scientific method, as the leading minds of the time sought to pose questions, formulate answers, and test their ideas in ways that could be repeated and critiqued by their peers. The collaborative nature of the movement led to the formation of prominent academic societies during the peak of the Scientific Revolution in the 1660s, with the foremost of these being the Royal Society of London, established in 1662, and the Academie des Sciences of Paris, founded in 1666.

Many of the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution were rooted in humanity's innate curiosity about the heavens. The Scientific Revolution is generally held to have begun with the work of Copernicus, who published his heliocentric theory of the universe in 1543. His idea that the planets revolved around the sun stood in direct opposition to prevailing contemporary geocentric theory, which held that the Earth was the center of the universe around which all other heavenly bodies were arranged. The geocentric model had been in favor since its first suggestion by the ancient Roman mathematician Ptolemy, and had the support of the socially and politically influential Catholic Church. The heliocentric theory slowly gained support from the most prominent minds of the time, from Galileo to Kepler and finally Newton, whose work unified the findings of his predecessors and conclusively proved that the planets rotate around the sun. Isaac Newton was important to the Scientific Revolution because of his discoveries and contributions to the new field of science. This led to him becoming the first scientist to receive a knighthood in the British peerage, as he was honored by Queen Anne in 1705.

How did Newton Contribute to the Scientific Revolution?

From the 1660s onward, Isaac Newton rose through the academic ranks to become recognized as one of the most notable thinkers of the Scientific Revolution. He first received a fellowship position at Cambridge in 1667, before being named a Mathematics Professor there the following year. Much of his most significant work was completed during periods of social isolation, such as during the late 1660s, when he returned to his family farm to avoid the threat of plague in the larger cities. It was here that he claimed to have discovered the falling apple that set in motion his quest to explain gravity. As a result he first formulated one of his biggest accomplishments, the Three Laws of Motion. One of his other major contributions to the Scientific Revolution was that he invented the reflecting telescope as a response to the limitations of the popular refracting telescope in use at the time. A later self-imposed period of isolation, in response to criticism of his work on the nature of light, led to the publication of Newton's "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy" (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, commonly known as the Principia) in 1687. It was in this work, now considered one of the crucial building blocks of modern science, that he elaborated on his laws of gravity and motion.

Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation

Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation states that any two objects in space exert a force on each other that is related to their respective masses and the distance between them. The formula given for this law is that the force of attraction F is equal to the product of the gravitational constant G and the masses of the two objects in question, which is then divided by the square of the distance (R) between the two objects. Newton applied this law to the prior work of Johannes Kepler, using it to explain Kepler's observations of planetary motion.

Laws of Motion

Perhaps the most famous portion of the Principia is Newton's Three Laws of Motion, which are as follows:

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Discussion Questions about Newtonian Physics

Ask the students the following questions and encourage them to discuss their ideas.

Question 1:

What parts of modern science are possible because Newton explained gravity?

  • Related question: What was the world like before Newton?

Question 2:

Newton explained how forces act on objects. Can you think of anything that might be called a force?

  • Related question: What causes objects to move, speed up, slow down, or stop?

Question 3 (Challenge):

How does Newton's understanding of gravity help explain the heliocentric solar system?

  • Hints: Consider these facts about Newton's explanation of gravity:
    • Gravity causes objects to move toward each other or around each other.
    • Larger masses move slower and smaller mass move faster.

Answers and Discussion Ideas

Question 1:

There are many examples. Space science is probably the most obvious, as space travel and exploration, predicting paths of comets and meteors, and putting satellites into orbit all require a deep understanding of gravity and motion. Note that satellites allow for virtually all of our modern communication. Other examples include understanding of tides and tectonic activity and earthquake prediction.

Follow-up: There are a lot of things about the Dark Ages that could relate to this question. Regarding the state of science before Newton, a lot of scientific and engineering knowledge was passed down from years of trial and error. Newton's equations allowed people to predict phenomena, such as exactly how much weight a structure could hold or the existence of planets based on movements of others. The predictive power of Newton's physics allowed for an explosion of invention.

Question 2:

These can be demonstrated in class if desired.

  • Mechanical forces (pushing a cart)
  • magnetic forces (magnets)
  • electricity (static electricity stands your hair up)
  • friction (If you roll a marble on a carpet it eventually stops)
  • air resistance (drop a sheet of paper and a marble)
  • gravity

Question 3:

The sun is so massive, the gravitational pull of the small planets is not enough to make it move. It makes more sense for the smaller earth to be moving around the sun than the other way around.

What did Isaac Newton discover?

Isaac Newton discovered that forces of motion act on and between objects in specific predictable ways, as described by his Law of Universal Gravitation and Three Laws of Motion.

Why is Isaac Newton important?

Isaac Newton is important for his contributions to the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries; specifically, his Law of Universal Gravitation, Three Laws of Motion, and invention of the reflecting telescope.

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