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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Isaac Barrow

Portrait of Isaac barrow taken from Isaac Barrow. Lectiones mathematicæ XXIII in quibus principia matheseôs generalia exponuntur: habitæ Cantabrigiæ A.D. 1664, 1665, 1666. Londini: typis J. Playford, pro G. Wells, 1685 [Rare Books Collection QA7. B2]Portrait of Isaac barrow taken from Isaac Barrow. Lectiones mathematicæ XXIII in quibus principia matheseôs generalia exponuntur: habitæ Cantabrigiæ A.D. 1664, 1665, 1666. Londini: typis J. Playford, pro G. Wells, 1685 [Rare Books Collection QA7. B2]The mathematician and theologian Isaac Barrow (1630-77) was the first holder of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge and had an important influence on the early career Isaac Newton. He was not Newton’s tutor, as has sometimes been claimed, but Newton attended Barrow’s lectures and Barrow was familiar with Newton’s mathematical work and appreciated his abilities. In 1669 Barrow encouraged Newton to write De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas to establish his priority in discovering a general method of infinite series.

The paper was circulated to several other mathematicians, such as John Collins and John Wallis. It was well received and Newton’s abilities thus became known outside Cambridge. Furthermore, in October of that year Barrow, believing his mathematical work was interfering with his calling as a divine, resigned the Lucasian Chair and recommended that Newton take his place. Given Newton’s newly found reputation as a mathematician, Barrow’s recommendation was accepted.

Barrow’s lectures at Cambridge seem even have been an inspiration to Newton in his work on calculus, with Newton writing in around 1714 that Barrow’s lectures on motion may have ‘put me upon taking these things into consideration’. However, as Mordechai Feingold has pointed out, Newton generally tried to distance himself from any intellectual debt to his old mentor, as the Leibniz camp in the calculus priority dispute claimed that Newton had appropriated ideas from Barrow’s mathematical work. Indeed, the Newton camp made similar accusations about Leibniz.

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