15 Observational Facts About Isaac Newton

What Galileo and Descartes had begun, Isaac Newton polished: By discovering the mathematical principles that grounded everything from falling apples to orbiting moons, planets, and comets, Newton laid the foundations of modern physics. Oh, and he co-invented calculus too. And a new kind of telescope. And more. Some of his achievements are readily filed under G for genius; others simply reveal his complex and all-too-human personality. Here are 15 things that you might not have known about Sir Isaac.

1. ISAAC WAS BORN PREMATURELY AND BARELY SURVIVED HIS FIRST WEEK ON EARTH.

Newton’s father, also named Isaac Newton, died a few months before young Isaac was born in 1642. When his mother, Hannah, gave birth, the baby was so tiny he wasn’t expected to survive. John Conduitt, who would later marry Newton’s niece, recounts Newton’s claim that “when he was born, he was so little they could put him into a quart pot.”

2. YOUNG ISAAC WAS BULLIED AT SCHOOL—AND FOUGHT BACK.

As a youngster, Newton attended the King’s School, the local grammar school in Grantham, Lincolnshire (still functioning as a boys school to this day). One day the school bully kicked Newton in the stomach, prompting Newton to challenge the boy to a fight after class. John Conduitt writes: “Though Sir Isaac was not so lusty as his antagonist, he had so much more spirit and resolution.” Newton won the fight, which ended with Newton pulling the other boy by the ears, and pushing his face “against the side of the church.” The incident may have kick-started Newton’s academic performance: Before the fight, he was near the bottom of his class; afterward, he rose to be first in the school.

3. THE APPLE PROBABLY DIDN’T HIT HIM ON THE HEAD.

The solution of the problem of the brachistochrone, or curve of quickest descent, by Isaac Newton, 1696. Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Like the story of Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the story of Newton and the Apple has taken on legendary proportions. Lazing in the garden of his boyhood home, Newton saw an apple fall to the ground; in contemplating its fall, he also thought about the Moon moving in its orbit around the Earth, eventually deducing that the same force—gravity—was the cause of both. As he recalled later, he “began to think of gravity as extending to the orb of the moon.” Historians suggest that the apple story, which Newton only told very late in life, should be taken with a grain of salt. And he never claimed it bonked him on the head.

4. NEWTON WAS THE QUINTESSENTIAL ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR.

As a student and later a professor at Cambridge, Newton had a reputation for being reclusive, and even a bit nasty. He had few close friends, rarely spoke, and sometimes got so caught up in his work that he forgot to eat. On one occasion, when no one turned up for his class, he’s said to have lectured to an empty room. (Some have suggested that Newton was autistic—a claim that has been made about Einstein, too—but such diagnoses are very hard to support based on historical information alone.)

5. HIS GREATEST WORK ALMOST DIDN’T SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY.

Circa 1700, Newton's makeshift observatory. Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Newton, who shunned the spotlight, was hesitant to publish many of his results. His most important work, on motion and gravity, collected dust in his study for more than two decades, until astronomer Edmond Halley urged him to publish. The resulting volume was finally printed in 1687 under the weighty title Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Though only a select handful could fully comprehend the book’s dense formulas and diagrams, it cemented Newton’s reputation as the greatest scientist of his day.

6. THAT “SHOULDERS OF GIANTS” THING WAS ACTUALLY AN INSULT.

You know the quote: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It sounds like Newton is giving credit to the great thinkers who came before. In fact, some historians now believe that it was likely intended as a jab at his rival, Robert Hooke, who was short and possibly hunchbacked. But others point out that Newton and Hooke wouldn’t have a falling out for another 10 years.

7. NEWTON LOVED SELFIES.

Newton, 1689. Original artwork after portrait by Godfrey Kneller. Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In spite of his reclusiveness, Newton had his portrait painted more than a dozen times, especially in the final quarter of his life. Historian Mordechai Feingold writes: “Only monarchs, and perhaps a few noblemen, surpassed Newton in the number of times they commissioned portraits of themselves.”

8. HE WAS INTO A LOT MORE THAN SCIENCE.

We remember Newton for his work in physics, astronomy, and mathematics, but his private letters and notebooks show that he was equally interested in alchemy (the attempt to turn metals such as lead into gold) and biblical chronology—including various attempts to predict the date of the Apocalypse. According to historian of science Stephen Snobelen, Newton’s most confident date for the end of the world was 2060—an idea that led to a provocative 2003 BBC TV documentary called Newton: The Dark Heretic.

9. HE MAY HAVE SUFFERED FROM MERCURY POISONING.

Newton spent countless hours in his laboratory working on all manner of alchemical experiments. When some of his preserved hair was analyzed in the 1970s, it was found to contain high levels of mercury, arsenic, and other toxins. Some historians believe this partly explains his irritable behavior, and perhaps also a nervous breakdown that he suffered in the 1690s, when he was in his 50s.

10. HE ONCE STUCK A NEEDLE IN HIS EYE … FOR SCIENCE.

Newton's reflecting telescope, dating to approximately 1670. Image credit: Jimmy Sime/Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

OK, not literally in his eye—but Newton recounts how he inserted a bodkin (a long, thin sewing needle) between his eye and the adjacent bone as part of his investigation of vision and color perception. He inserted it “as near to the backside of my eye as I could,” applying pressure so as to distort the eye. The result? “Several white, dark, and colored circles” appeared. Now that’s dedication. (But don’t try it at home.)

11. NEWTON WAS A LACKLUSTER POLITICIAN.

Newton served two terms in the English Parliament, as the representative for Cambridge University. It’s said that he spoke only when he felt a draft, requesting that the window be closed.

12. IF YOU WERE A COUNTERFEITER, HE WAS YOUR WORST ENEMY.

Late in life, Newton took up a position at the Royal Mint in London, first as Warden and later as Master. He took his duties seriously, tracking down counterfeiters and anyone guilty of “clipping”—illegally hacking the edges off of coins, and melting down the silver for re-use. Newton devoted much energy to hunting down the offenders, becoming 17th-century London’s Dirty Harry. Several ended up at the gallows.

13. NEWTON MAY HAVE DIED A VIRGIN.

There has been much speculation about Newton’s sexuality (or lack thereof). The French philosopher, Voltaire, was at Newton’s funeral, and reported that, according to the doctors who had attended to the great man, Newton “never went near any woman.” Newton’s notebooks tell of his struggles to banish sexual thoughts from his mind. At least one biographer has argued that Newton was gay, citing his tumultuous relations with a young Swiss mathematician. However, scholars working on The Newton Project, which aims to put all of Newton’s writings online, says the claim of homosexuality is “purely conjectural and much disputed.”

14. NEWTON ONLY LAUGHED TWICE.

Or so it was said. According to William Stukeley, the great thinker once loaned an acquaintance a copy of Euclid’s Elements, a weighty treatise on mathematics and geometry. The acquaintance asked Newton of what use the book might be, “upon which Sir Isaac was very merry.”

John Conduitt tells of a second time he laughed, when asked about why he didn’t talk about our own Sun as much as distant stars. Newton replied that it was because “[the Sun] concerned us more” and, as Conduitt described, “laughing added he had said enough for people to know his meaning.” (Sure it was, Isaac.)

15. AFTER NEWTON, WE REDEFINED THE WORD GENIUS.

In Newton’s time, the idea of “genius” had traditionally been associated with artists and poets. But after the Englishman’s work became widely known, the word took on a broader meaning. As Mordechai Feingold notes: “Largely owing to the towering example of Newton … in the course of the 18th century the concept was redefined.”

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

The 25 Best Colleges in America

Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images
Vasyl Dolmatov/iStock via Getty Images

The college decision process is always a tough one, but review site Niche's annual rankings of the best colleges in America make it easier for prospective students (and their parents) to narrow down the choices to find the best fit. The 2020 list takes a variety of factors into account, including student life, admissions, finances, and student reviews. But the most important factor in their methodology, comprising 40 percent of a school's overall rating, is academics, which, according to the Niche website, looks at "acceptance rate, quality of professors, as well as student and alumni surveys regarding academics at the school."

Taking the number one spot on Niche's list for the second year in a row is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed by Stanford University in the number two spot (again, for the second year in a row). Six of America's eight Ivy League schools made it into the top 10.

Here are the 25 Best Colleges in America for 2020, according to Niche's rankings.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology // Cambridge, MA

  1. Stanford University // Stanford, CA

  1. Yale University // New Haven, CT

  1. Harvard University // Cambridge, MA

  1. Princeton University // Princeton, NJ

  1. Duke University // Durham, NC

  1. Brown University // Providence, RI

  1. Columbia University // New York, NY

  1. University of Pennsylvania // Philadelphia, PA

  1. Rice University // Houston, TX

  1. Northwestern University // Evanston, IL

  1. Vanderbilt University // Nashville, TN

  1. Pomona College // Claremont, CA

  1. Washington University in St. Louis // St. Louis, MO

  1. Dartmouth College // Hanover, NH

  1. California Institute of Technology // Pasadena, CA

  1. University of Notre Dame // Notre Dame, IN

  1. University of Chicago // Chicago, IL

  1. University of Southern California // Los Angeles, CA

  1. Cornell University // Ithaca, NY

  1. Bowdoin College // Brunswick, ME

  1. Amherst College // Amherst, MA

  1. University of Michigan // Ann Arbor, MI

  1. Georgetown University // Washington DC

  1. Tufts University // Medford, MA

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