Science for High School

Learn to Study Science from the Masters, Part 1

How Did Sir Isaac Newton Study Science?

This will be the first of several articles coming out throughout the year on how well-known scientists studied science. How many of them there will be is still to be determined! Did they learn scientific principles through lectures? Through textbooks? How? Would we learn better this way also?

Sir Isaac Newton had a sad upbringing, and his childhood schooling was sporadic. His uncle encouraged his mother to enroll him in the university in a type of a “work-study” program when he was 17. The scientific philosophy at the time was of a great debate: Aristotle’s geocentric world view versus Copernicus’ view as heliocentric. An accepted philosophy was alchemy (a false science where the alchemist tries to turn ordinary metals into gold). He received his bachelor’s degree, but, as he was pursuing his higher studies, the Great Plague of 1665 was upon England, and everyone was sent home for a year and a half (some say two years). He was a brilliant mathematician, an aspect that I will not focus on at this time. During his time at home, it is believed that he applied himself to studying mathematics and scientific principles. It is thought that he was inspired about gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree (some say the apple hit him on the head); also he formulated ideas about light and color (optics), as well as planetary motion. Life for him held no electronics, so he had nothing to entertain himself with except books that he would study (written in Latin and Greek). He would often pass time by observing things around him and writing those observations in notebooks. “Newton was driven by the belief that the path to true knowledge lay in making observations rather than reading books.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zwwgcdm)

Newton would perform his experiments carefully, and write down all his observations and results. One experiment’s results would trigger an idea for another experiment, which would trigger another idea … etc. And he applied what he discovered. For example, in his experiments on optics he devised a reflecting telescope that helped him and others see the stars more clearly (and which piqued the interest of the Royal Society).

There is much to say about Newton, but the focus on this blog is how he learned his scientific principles. Newton learned Latin, Greek and Philosophy from his years at school, through teachers/professors and textbooks. Scientifically, he learned by DOING! He asked questions about things he observed. He learned by trial and error, researching what other people had done, devising experiments to see for himself. His curiosity led to action which led to discoveries and accomplishments.