The poetry and art of Isaac Newton

Bill Dennison ·
7 August 2014
Science Communication | 

Scientists who made a difference’ series

This blog accompanying the biographical sketch of Isaac Newton looks at a selection of his writing as poetry and a selection of his scientific sketches as art. The ‘Poetry” uses Newton’s exact words (translated into English from the Latin text) in prose form to focus on the cadence and word choice. These words come from Newton’s book “Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica” published in 1687. This passage deal with Newton’s thinking about the laws of motion and how they apply to many aspects of the natural world. The ‘Art’ uses a sketch that Newton made of his prism experiment conducted in his room at Cambridge University. Newton studied optics and wrote a book “Opticks” in 1704. Newton was an active experimentalist to accompany his scientific theories and this depiction of a simple, yet profound, experiment using a prism to separate white light into its constituent colors illustrates his passion for experimental data.

Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica
Title page of Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first edition (1686/1687). source Wikipedia

Mathematical principles of philosophy

Isaac Newton

We consider chiefly those things

Which relate to gravity,

Levity, elastic force,

The resistance of fluids,

And the like forces,

Whether attractive or impulsive;

And therefore,

We offer this work as the

Mathematical principles of philosophy;

For all the difficulty of philosophy

Seems to consist of this--

From the phenomena

Of motions

To investigate the forces of nature,

And then from these forces,

To demonstrate the other phenomena.


From these forces,

By other propositions

Which are also mathematical,

We deduce the motions

Of the planets,

The comets,

The moon,

And the sea.


Light prism experiments in Cambridge

Isaac Newton 

Isaac Newton's prism experiment
A drawing Isaac Newton made of the prism experiment he conducted in his dorm room in Cambridge. Source: Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University



About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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