XI. NEWTON AND THE COMPOSITION OF LIGHT
Galileo, that giant in physical science of the early seventeenth century, died in 1642. On Christmas day of the same year there was born in England another intellectual giant who was destined to carry forward the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to a marvellous consummation through the discovery of the great unifying law in accordance with which the planetary motions are performed. We refer, of course, to the greatest of English physical scientists, Isaac Newton, the Shakespeare of the scientific world. Born thus before the middle of the seventeenth century, Newton lived beyond the first quarter of the eighteenth (1727). For the last forty years of that period his was the dominating scientific personality of the world. With full propriety that time has been spoken of as the "Age of Newton."
Yet the man who was to achieve such distinction gave no early premonition of future greatness. He was a sickly child from birth, and a boy of little seeming promise. He was an indifferent student, yet, on the other hand, he cared little for the common amusements of boyhood. He early exhibited, however, a taste for mechanical contrivances, and spent much time in devising windmills, water-clocks, sun-dials, and kites. While other boys were interested only in having kites that would fly, Newton—at least so the stories of a later time would have us understand—cared more for the investigation of the seeming principles involved, or for testing the best methods of attaching the strings, or the best materials to be used in construction.
Meanwhile the future philosopher was acquiring a taste for reading and study, delving into old volumes whenever he found an opportunity. These habits convinced his relatives that it was useless to attempt to make a farmer of the youth, as had been their intention. He was therefore sent back to school, and in the summer of 1661 he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Even at college Newton seems to have shown no unusual mental capacity, and in 1664, when examined for a scholarship by Dr. Barrow, that gentleman is said to have formed a poor opinion of the applicant. It is said that the knowledge of the estimate placed upon his abilities by his instructor piqued Newton, and led him to take up in earnest the mathematical studies in which he afterwards attained such distinction. The study of Euclid and Descartes's "Geometry" roused in him a latent interest in mathematics, and from that time forward his investigations were carried on with enthusiasm. In 1667 he was elected Fellow of Trinity College, taking the degree of M.A. the following spring.
It will thus appear that Newton's boyhood and early manhood were passed during that troublous time in British political annals which saw the overthrow of Charles I., the autocracy of Cromwell, and the eventual restoration of the Stuarts. His maturer years witnessed the overthrow of the last Stuart and the reign of the Dutchman, William of Orange. In his old age he saw the first of the Hanoverians mount the throne of England. Within a decade of his death such scientific path-finders as Cavendish, Black, and Priestley were born—men who lived on to the close of the eighteenth century. In a full sense, then, the age of Newton bridges the gap from that early time of scientific awakening under Kepler and Galileo to the time which we of the twentieth century think of as essentially modern.
THE COMPOSITION OF WHITE LIGHT
In December, 1672, Newton was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and at this meeting a paper describing his invention of the refracting telescope was read. A few days later he wrote to the secretary, making some inquiries as to the weekly meetings of the society, and intimating that he had an account of an interesting discovery that he wished to lay before the society. When this communication was made public, it proved to be an explanation of the discovery of the composition of white light. We have seen that the question as to the nature of color had commanded the attention of such investigators as Huygens, but that no very satisfactory solution of the question had been attained. Newton proved by demonstrative experiments that white light is composed of the blending of the rays of diverse colors, and that the color that we ascribe to any object is merely due to the fact that the object in question reflects rays of that color, absorbing the rest. That white light is really made up of many colors blended would seem incredible had not the experiments by which this composition is demonstrated become familiar to every one. The experiments were absolutely novel when Newton brought them forward, and his demonstration of the composition of light was one of the most striking expositions ever brought to the attention of the Royal Society. It is hardly necessary to add that, notwithstanding the conclusive character of Newton's work, his explanations did not for a long time meet with general acceptance.
Newton was led to his discovery by some experiments made with an ordinary glass prism applied to a hole in the shutter of a darkened room, the refracted rays of the sunlight being received upon the opposite wall and forming there the familiar spectrum. "It was a very pleasing diversion," he wrote, "to view the vivid and intense colors produced thereby; and after a time, applying myself to consider them very circumspectly, I became surprised to see them in varying form, which, according to the received laws of refraction, I expected should have been circular. They were terminated at the sides with straight lines, but at the ends the decay of light was so gradual that it was difficult to determine justly what was their figure, yet they seemed semicircular.