Sir Isaac Newton (Jan. 4th, 1643 — Mar. 31st, 1727) is important to astronomy because he formulated the mathematical and physical ideas that would give future astronomers the tools to better understand the universe. As he began to formulate the idea of universal gravitation, he suspected that it extended beyond those things on Earth—perhaps it pulled the moon as well. From here, he also developed laws of motion that created a foundation to understand why planets followed certain paths. With these ideas, scientists began to find explanations for things such as the orbits of comets and how planets moved. To read more about his discoveries, you can click here.
While Newton began his studies at the University of Cambridge, scary things were happening in England. The great plague broke out in London in 1655. This directly affected Newton because his school briefly closed at this point, so he went home for two years. The economy suffered as trade stopped and the wealthy fled while the poor had no choice but to stay. The official death toll is recorded at 68,596 deaths, or 15% of the population, but of course it is likely that that is an underestimation.
A year later in 1666, the Great Fire of London occurred after a particularly hot and dry summer. It began on September 2nd and spread with an east wind until half the city was engulfed by September 4th. They tried to put it out with buckets of water and pulling down the houses in its path, but it did not go out until September 6th, leaving only 1/5th of the city standing. A surprising benefit of this mass destruction was that it helped clear out a crowded and disease-ridden city and gave them a chance to start anew.
Newton was not, of course, the only one making great scientific progress at this time. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek lived at the same time as Newton. . He advanced our understanding of microbiology and was born October 24th, 1632 and died August 26th, 1723. He made many microscopes, under which he would study microorganisms such as bacteria, nematodes, blood cells, and sperm cells. His observations were special because of his skill in lens grinding allowed him to magnify up to 200 times, and he took great care in describing all the things he placed under his microscopes.
Learning about Newton’s historical context is a reminder that this man did not do science in a bubble, and the world is a very dangerous place. His school had to close during the great plague! Then a year later, the whole city caught on fire! If he hadn’t left the city during the plague outbreak, perhaps he would have been a casualty of the fire. I wonder where our understanding of physics would be in that case. It makes me wonder how many brilliant, budding scientists we lost too early.