Isaac Newton is one of history’s great scientists. He was also a weird guy

The eminent scientist was determination and curiosity personified, and that led him down some truly strange paths

Yashfinul Haque
Published : 4 Jan 2023, 01:27 PM
Updated : 4 Jan 2023, 01:27 PM

Jan 4 is the official birthday of renowned mathematician, physicist and astronomer Isaac Newton.

Millennials have something of a grudge against Sir Isaac Newton. If Newton's discovery of the Laws of Motion made us resent him as teenagers, we now hate him even more as university students for creating Calculus. Nevertheless, we can all agree that his work has significantly impacted almost every part of our lives. But how much of Newton's life do we really know? What made Newton one of the finest in his field? This article isn’t a lecture about how extensive and significant his work was, but rather about how his life was both more relatable and more strange than is commonly taught.

Newton is known for his astonishing accomplishments in completely reinventing the whole paradigm of science and mathematics. One would presume that he was brilliant and exceptional. The reality, however, differs quite greatly from expectations. Few people nowadays know just what a strange, difficult life he led. 

Newton was born prematurely several weeks after the death of his father. He was small and weak as an infant and his mother even described how we could have fit into a quart-sized mug. He wasn't expected to survive. Despite all the odds, he did. This determination would become a recurring theme in his life. 

Newton did not have a happy childhood. When he was three, his mother remarried, left him with his grandparents, and went off to live with her new husband. Newton was resentful of this arrangement. Among a list of sins he once wrote down, he included: “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.” 

Over time, he developed an introverted personality. Even as a student, Newton found solace in solitude. He wasn't a particularly bright student, but he was persistent. When his mother attempted to pressure him to drop out of school, he refused. Because of his tenacity, he eventually became a strong competitor and a ruthless Royal Mint warden, doggedly pursuing his studies.

Even when he became a teacher, his introversion was quite strong. He was appointed as the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, but rarely held classes. During a later appointment as the representative of the university to the British Parliament, he rarely spoke. In fact, it is rumoured that the only time he said anything in the post was when he asked for a window to be opened. 

It is claimed that during his lifetime, Newton wrote over ten million words. However, most of them never got published. In fact, quite a few were completely ridiculous and nonsensical. So, if you worry about your own terrible ideas, rest assured they were nothing on the scale of Newton's.

Newton’s intelligence largely came from his proclivity to study and analyze things. He was a keen observer, and when he became interested in anything, he pursued it with zeal. That is what drove him to find all of his breakthroughs as well as carry out the most bizarre procedures. For example, when in quarantine during the Great Plague, he authored a paper in which he proposed treating the plague with toad vomit.  

"The best is a toad suspended by the legs in a chimney for three days, which at last vomited up the earth with various insects in it, on to a dish of yellow wax, and shortly after died. Combining powdered toad with the excretions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affected area drove away from the contagion and drew out the poison," he wrote. 

This happened at the same time Newton was working on his theory of gravity and developing his early work on calculus, both of which would eventually culminate in his most significant work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

Newton's perseverance also led him to put his own life and health at risk for the sake of his work. For instance, during the same pandemic, Newton decided to put a large sewing needle into his eye as part of an experiment. Fortunately, he did not lose his sight, although he later eloquently described the result as- "several white, dark, and colored circles (appeared)." Later in his life, he would embark on yet another similar experiment where he almost blinded himself by gazing into the sun for too long. Though this time, his ridiculous experiment did bear some fruit on his work on optics (Opticks, 1704).

Newton's scientific experiments were only one facet of his enduring oddness. Other than his scientific practices, Newton also secretly performed alchemy. Contrary to the rest of his work, Newton spent over three decades searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Yes, you read that right: The Philosopher's Stone - the mythical stone that transforms lead into gold. Newton was an avid believer in the myth and was determined to find it. It is said that Newton had read every book that he could find on alchemy and tried to recreate the recipes in his lab. He has even written several coded papers on his recipes, some of which are still being decoded to this day.

Newton was not only obsessed with alchemy but also a radical believer in Christianity. Nowadays, it is difficult to connect faith with science, yet the Bible was the wellspring of the universe's mysteries Newton. He was so concerned with the notion that he drafted a whole paper to decipher the Bible. However, when it comes to Newton's theological endeavours, his most absurd work was the forecast of the world's end in 2060.

However, Newton’s perseverance may have led to his downfall. It is believed that Newton's work with mercury during his alchemical activities caused mercury poisoning, which can cause tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. It must have been particularly frustrating for a man of his proclivities, and he was reportedly very irritable and difficult in later years.

Regardless, Newton's life and nature demonstrate that brilliance does not require any inherent abilities. Despite his unconventional and odd ways, Newton revolutionised scientific thinking. His life and work demonstrate how far a person can go with the simple qualities of curiosity and determination.

This article was written for Stripe,'s special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.