Cosmic Codebreaker, Pious Heretic
Born prematurely on Christmas Day 1642, the year of Galileo's death, Isaac Newton was sickly and not expected to live. He spent the first few days of his life in a shoebox behind the woodstove. His father had died a few months earlier, and while little Isaac survived the sicknesses of infancy, he endured a series of childhood traumas, including abandonment by his mother to his grandparents, that left him withdrawn and solitary. Eventually he came to believe that thinking about nature was of far more importance than social distractions like marriage, children, or even friends.
As a young man, Isaac proved incompetent on the farm, once leading a bridle to the barn, unaware that the horse had escaped. Fences he was in charge of were always falling down, and court records chronicle numerous fines he received for allowing livestock to trample the neighbors' property.
More at home in the world of books, Isaac ended up in 1661 at Cambridge University, where the field hands on his farm had long said he belonged. He graduated without fanfare in 1665.
To escape the plague, he returned home for two remarkable years. Out of this brief seclusion came what was essentially a set of blueprints for changing the world: his theory of universal gravity and a number of major contribution to optics. But no one knew, yet, what the daydreamy young man was up to.
Newton returned to Cambridge University in 1667 and was soon, at age 26, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. His star continued to rise as he made important scientific contributions, explaining everything from the motion of the planets, to the swing of a pendulum, to the formation of rainbows. Or at least explaining such things to himself, as the lectures he was required to give were often ...