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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2014

3 - Isaac Newton: Creator of the Cambridge scientific tradition


In the mid seventeenth century, mathematics and science were accorded no greater importance in the University of Cambridge than in other universities throughout Europe. One hundred years later the position was quite different. Though the traditional academic ‘exercises’ still took place, the ability of graduands was judged by their performance in the Senate House Examination or Mathematical ‘Tripos’. During the seventeenth century, traditions of teaching mathematical subjects, ‘natural philosopy’ (i.e., physical science), and medicine were modernised in many European countries, including Britain, but the influence of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) brought about particularly swift and far-reaching changes at Cambridge, his own university.

As Lucasian Professor of Mathematics for nearly thirty years from 1669, Newton set some of his own discoveries before his auditors (few enough) without ever proposing any general reform of education, while in private – in documents long unread and showing little desire to alter the balance between humane and mathematical or scientific studies – he increased the latter's importance. Most interesting in these drafts is the new role of a mathematically based natural philosophy, for which students were to be prepared by courses in geometry and mechanics, that is, ‘the demonstrative doctrine of motions … For without a judgement in these things a man can have none in [natural] philosophy.’ The latter subject Newton explained as the investigation of those matters which he himself had so far advanced in his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy [Principia] (1687), beginning with an understanding of time, space, body, and motion, moving on to rational and fluid mechanics, astronomy and cosmology, then ending ‘if the [lecturer] have skill therein’ with knowledge of minerals, vegetables, and anatomy.