Nicola here, dropping in to wish Sir Isaac Newton, one of most visionary of scientists, a very happy birthday. Google is celebrating the day with a rather cute header that displays a falling apple!
One of the interesting things about Newton's birthday is that the actual date is disputed. Pinpointing specific dates was something of a problem in the days before official records of births, marriages and deaths were kept consistently. Whilst some records state that Newton was born on 4th January 1642, others give Christmas Day as his birth date. At any rate, Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire and last summer I had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful little manor house. It was a gorgeous sunny day and people were picnicking in the orchard underneath the famous apple tree!
Newton came from a farming family but swiftly discovered that he was not cut out for the farming life. When he was put in charge of the flock of sheep they all wandered off because he was too busy scribbling mathematical calculations to keep his eye on them. Apparently even as a child he would amuse himself by doing simple experiments and making models to try and understand things like wind speed and force. From an early age he showed unusual interest in a number of mathematical and scientific problems, as well as developing an understanding of astronomy. He studied at Grantham School and at Cambridge University, a considerable acheivement for a boy from a relatively poor family. Later he returned to Woolsthorpe in 1665-1666 because of the threat of plague in Cambridge, and it is during that period that he did some of the most intense and inventive work of his life. He also wrote the Principia, his treatise on the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosopy, at this time.
One of the nice things about visiting Woolsthorpe now is that there is an interactive science centre where you can learn about Newton's discoveries about light and gravity by trying out hands on experiments. For a complete science Luddite like myself it was lots of fun because it explained complicated theories in words of one syllable. For my husband, a scientist by training, it was even more fun because he could play! My favourite aspect of the house, however, was Newton's graffiti. He was known to have made a habit of using various walls in the house as 'doodling pads' and fragments of this writingcan be seen scrawled in several places!
The aspect of Woolsthorpe that struck me the most, though, was the rural isolation and the silence. It made it easy to imagine the twenty four year old Newton working away on all his mind-blowing new scientific theories in such a peaceful setting. On the other hand, the contrast with a city like Cambridge, buzzing with fellow academics and new ideas, was extreme. As someone who lives and works in a tiny village I sometimes find the isolation lonely and oppressive and yearn for a few people to talk to and bounce ideas off. It made me wonder if Newton found it more conducive to work in the solitude of Woolsthorpe or the bustle of Cambridge.
We may not all be Newtons, but we all need certain conditions to work at our best. Where do you have your best ideas? Do you need peace and quiet or do you find that working with others inspires your work? Or is it a bit of both?