At his birth on Christmas day, 1642, in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, Newton was so tiny and frail that he was not expected to live. Yet despite his boyhood frailty, he lived to the age of 85. As a delicate child, he was a loner, interested more in reading, solving mathematical problems, and mechanical tinkering than in taking part in the usual boyish activities. Until the time Newton entered Cambridge University in 1661, there was little inkling as to his mental prowess. His shyness kept him from making friends easily, and he did not mix with his more boisterous fellow students.

At the university he took courses in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, logic, geometry, and trigonometry, and he attended lectures in astronomy, natural philosophy, and optics. His leisure time was spent reading works by Kepler and by Descartes, the inventor of analytic geometry, and filling his notebooks with remarks on the refraction of light, the grinding of lenses, and the extraction of roots of algebraic equations. Newton received his baccalaureate degree–without any great distinction–and then returned to his home in Woolsthorpe because of the plague that was sweeping Europe.

Over a period of 18 or so months at home, which were probably the most productive years of his life, Newton discovered the expansion of the general binomial (a+b)n, invented the “fluxions” (differential calculus), demonstrated that white light was composed of different colors of light, discovered the law of gravitation, and laid the foundations of celestial mechanics. In 1668 Newton constructed the world’s first reflecting telescope. It had an aperture of 1 inch and a tube length of 6 inches, which led Newton to say of it: “This small instrument, though in itself contemptible may yet be looked upon as the epitome of what may be done this way.

Not satisfied with his first effort, he completed an improved and somewhat larger reflector with an aperture of nearly 2 inches. The publication of his book The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in 1687, which embodied his mathematical principles and ideas on gravitation and the system of the world, marked the peak of Newton’s creative career. The Principia represents the thought and study of more than 20 years, and it ranks in importance with Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. His treatise Opticks appeared in 1704, but most of it was written many years earlier.

Many tributes followed Newton’s death in 1727. One that stands out was made by the great French mathematical astronomer Lagrange, who said: “Newton was the greatest genius who ever lived, and the most fortunate; for we cannot find more than once a system of the world to establish. ” However, Newton said of himself: “If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants. ” In poet Alexander Pope’s Epitaph for Newton are these lines: Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said, “Let Newton be! ” and all was light.