Sir Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution

By Antonio Rebello

Sir Isaac Newton, 1689 (oil on canvas)

“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” – Sir Isaac Newton


The Scientific Revolution (1500-1750) is regarded as a period in Western history that was the precursor to the modern world. Through the rediscovery of classical Greek texts during the Renaissance emerged the ideas of empiricism and procuring truths through inductive reasoning. People started to question religious dogmas and would eventually subject society and government to the same scrutiny as that of scientific experiments. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was central to the Revolution and his work revolutionized the fields of motion and optics, amongst other subjects. He is considered the greatest scientific mind of his time and many compare him to Plato, Aristotle, and Galileo, given the extent to which his discoveries impacted Western thought.

This guide has been divided so that it starts broad and gradually focuses on Sir Isaac Newton. It opens with a General Overview of the Scientific Revolution, with books and a short film on the subject.  Then the guide provides primary and secondary sources on Newton’s life, his work, and its repercussions. These include books, websites, and databases. Research Guides related to the Revolution are provided at the end, for further guidance.

General Overview

Hall, Arthur Rupert. The Revolution in Science, 1500-1750. New York: Longman, 1983.

This book recognizes that Renaissance ideas paved the way for the Scientific Revolution and identifies Sir Isaac Newton as a key figure in the development of science. It is a valuable source if used as an overview of the Revolution as it discusses developments in various scientific fields as well as societal changes brought about by empiricism. The chapters dedicated to Newton and his legacy (12 and 14, respectively) provide a comprehensive review of his achievements and their repercussions.

Kearney, Hugh F. Science and Change, 1500-1700. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Kearney too recognizes the Renaissance as the precursor to the Scientific Revolution for its rediscovery of classical texts, namely the Aristotelian tradition, which reshaped people’s approach to problems as it emphasized empiricism. Again, Sir Isaac Newton is the only person with a chapter dedicated to him, cementing his importance to the revolution and to science. This book’s approach, however, is quite interesting as Kearney explicitly attempts to avoid a linear perspective on historical facts since he believes this practice oversimplifies the otherwise complex interplay of factors that lead to historical events.

Merriman, John M. “The New Philosophy of Science.” A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. 287-311.

A great synopsis of the Scientific Revolution, this chapter approaches topics such as the changing views of the universe and the origin of the scientific method. It provides a clear understanding of the new scientific developments of the time and the cultural/societal changes that occurred during the period. It also provides a comprehensive section on the consequences of the revolution, which included “subjecting society, government, and political thought to similar scrutiny” as that applied to scientific questions (p. 311).

Scientific Revolution – History Channel

A short film that highlights the importance of the scientific method and how it affected the way people viewed the world. It attributes the introduction of the method to Sir Isaac Newton, although this claim is debatable. Via the method, people were able to procure truths by inductive reasoning, which led to our modern understanding of science.

Sir Isaac Newton and the Revolution

Isaac Newton's reflecting telescope - his first major public scientific accomplishment, 1668

“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.” – Sir Isaac Newton

Secondary Sources

Isaac Newton – BBC Biography

This source is BBC’s brief account of Sir Isaac Newton’s main life events and his most important achievements. This source is a good introduction to Newton’s life but it only states events, failing to discuss their effects on science or society.

Isaac Newton – A Profile

This profile is a great guide into Sir Isaac Newton’s life and his accomplishments. It is quite complete, with sections dedicated to his early life, professional life, main work, and final years. It also has some interactive features, such as a section with pictures and another with videos, which include a 3-minute mini biography and a 44-minute biographical episode.

Andrade, E. N. da C. Sir Isaac Newton. London: Collins Clear-Type Press, 1954.

Part of a series of short biographies titled Brief Lives, this book provides a comprehensive summary of Sir Isaac Newton’s personal life, his achievements, and their repercussions. It has a chapter dedicated to his Principia, Newton’s masterpiece which discusses his three laws of motions and first introduced the idea of gravity. Its story-telling approach provides for an easy and enjoyable read.

Anthony, H. D. Sir Isaac Newton. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1960.

This biography attempts to show the varying activities of one of the world’s greatest men. As mentioned by the author, “the purpose of this study is to portray the life and work of Newton within the framework of contemporary history (p. 5)”. However, given that the book was first published in 1960, “contemporary history” is not as contemporary as one may have hoped.

Pemberton, Henry, and Richard Glover. A view of Sir Isaac Newton’s philosophy. London: Printed by S. Palmer, 1728.

This portrays the view that Newton’s contemporaries had on his philosophy. He had intentions of publishing his theories and discoveries in a manner comprehensible to the general public, but never did it. Henry Pemberton, a close friend of his, carried out this wish in 1728.

Isaac Newton Resources – The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences

This collection of resources provides various links to topics pertaining to Newton and his work. The links are divided into sections, such as: Birthplace and Schooling, Newton at Cambridge, Newton’s Works, and so on. There is also a section for children with resources that are more interactive and entertaining than text.

The Newton Project

The Newton Project is a non-profit organization that aims at publishing all of Newton’s writings online for free access by anyone. The Project provides a search engine feature for easier navigation through the pages. Also, they publish a diplomatic version–with Newton’s corrections evident–and a normalized version that takes the corrections into account for a smoother read. A thorough list of his biographies is also available and freely accessible.

The Newton Project YouTube Channel

The Newton Project created this YouTube Channel in September 2011. In it, they feature over 100 short films on varied topics, from “Newton’s essay ‘of music’” to “How creative was Newton.” The films consist mostly of experts on the specific subjects discussing them in a simpler and more colloquial manner than Newton’s writings do.

Primary Sources

Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – Newton’s Masterpiece, 1687

Newton Papers – Cambridge Digital Library

The University of Cambridge Library holds the most important and vast collection of scientific works by Sir Isaac Newton. This incredible resource allows one to access thousands of Newton’s handwritten works, which have been digitized. It contains papers, correspondence, and even his laboratory notebook. Each item is catalogued with a brief description and is available for download.

Isaac Newton’s Works – The Newton Project

This list sorts all of his work available in The Newton Project database by date and allows them to be readily accessed.

Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton – Cambridge Digital Library

This is a link to the digitized Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Newton’s masterpiece in which he discusses the three laws of motion and first introduces the idea of gravity. It is considered by many as the single-most influential book in physics and possibly all of science.

Related Research Guides

Scientific Revolution – University of Florida Research Guide

Dr. Robert A. Hatch created a thorough research guide for the Scientific Revolution. In it, one will find background information, biographies, articles, primary sources, and more, all dedicated to the Revolution and its main players. Unfortunately, it is not a very straightforward to navigate.

Scientific Revolution – Fordham University Research Guide

This guide displays several useful sources pertaining to the Revolution, both primary and secondary. It is organized chronologically and separates sources by themes.