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Illuminating Newton’s discoveries

A new exhibition at Newton’s birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor, featuring his prism and portable sundial from Trinity, seeks to inspire young scientists and inventors today.

Newton’s mathematical and scientific discoveries famously changed the way people understood the world in the seventeenth century – and hold sway today. A Trinity alumnus and Fellow, he is renowned for formulating a version of calculus, the laws of motion, and the law of universal gravitation.

Woolsthorpe Manor, where Newton grew up
Woolsthorpe Manor, where Newton grew up

Newton laid the foundations for his theories and began experiments at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, the modest farmhouse where he grew up and to which he returned in 1665-1666 as plague swept Cambridgeshire. ‘I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded Mathematicks and Philosophy more than at any time since,’ he later wrote.

Newton called it his ‘Year of Wonders.’ He was only 23 years old. On his return to Cambridge in 1667 he was elected a Fellow of Trinity and in 1669 he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.

Ribbons of light at Woolsthorpe
Ribbons of light at Woolsthorpe

At Woolsthorpe, Newton had begun experiments in optics; in his bedroom he used prisms to discern the properties of light and colour. Trinity has loaned a prism believed to belong to the scientist, and today visitors to the farmhouse, a National Trust property, can see it refracting light. Also on display is Newton’s pocket sundial from Trinity.

Jim Grevatte, Curator of the House of Light Season, said: ‘It is fantastic to have these objects associated with Sir Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor 350 years after he used them to discover the true properties of light and colour. They have provided an inspiration to future Newtons as we work with young scientists, inventors and artists to respond with their own creations during our House of Light season. We hope our partnership with Trinity College can lead to more exciting things in the future.’

It was also at Woolsthorpe that an apple dropping from a tree in the orchard sparked Newton’s development of the theory of gravity – or so he later said. At Trinity today, probably the most common question visitors ask is, ‘Where is Newton’s tree?’ (cuttings from the famous tree were planted at the College).

Trinity Fellow, Professor Valerie Gibson is a National Trust Board Member for the Illuminating Newton initiative. She gave the annual Newton Lecture at The King’s School in Grantham about her research, before the launch of the exhibition at Woolsthorpe.

This project aims to seek out any budding Newtons, their families and friends, and to expose Newton’s science along with cutting-edge research to a wider audience. It is an exciting project and will take the National Trust and Woolsthorpe Manor into a new era of cultural and scientific heritage.

Professor Gibson, who is Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, is also a Patron of the biennial Gravity Fields Festival held in Grantham – to be held in September 2018.

Newton’s annotated copy of Principia Mathematica is displayed in the Wren Library and can be viewed via the Wren Digital Library.



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