A Man Obsessed
In his later years, Isaac Newton was asked how he had arrived at his theory of universal gravitation. “By thinking on it continually,” was his matter-of-fact response. “Continual thinking” for Newton was almost beyond mortal capacity. He could abandon himself to his studies with a passion and ecstasy that others experience in love affairs. The object of his study could become an obsession, possessing him nonstop, and leaving him without food or sleep, beyond fatigue, and on the edge of breakdown.
The world Newton inhabited in his ecstasy was vast. Richard Westfall, Newton's principal biographer in this century, describes this “world of thought”: “Seen from afar, Newton's intellectual life appears unimaginably rich. He embraced nothing less than the whole of natural philosophy [science], which he explored from several vantage points, ranging all the way from mathematical physics to alchemy. Within natural philosophy, he gave new direction to optics, mechanics, and celestial dynamics, and he invented the mathematical tool [calculus] that has enabled modern science further to explore the paths he first blazed. He sought as well to plumb the mind of God and His eternal plan for the world and humankind as it was presented in the biblical prophecies.”
But, after all, Newton was human. His passion for an investigation would fade, and without synthesizing and publishing the work, he would move on to another grand theme. “What he thought on, he thought on continually, which is to say exclusively, or nearly exclusively,” Westfall continues, but “[his] career was episodic.” To build a coherent whole, Newton sometimes revisited a topic several times over a period of decades.
Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642, at Woolsthorpe Manor, near the Lincolnshire village of Colsterworth, sixty miles northwest of Cambridge and one