Isaac Newton: scientist, theologian, entrepreneur?

With a career spanning many disciplines, Issac Newton was one of the original multihyphenates — and, of course, he’s also our school’s namesake. This week, Professor Cornelis J. Schilt will share the untold story of Isaac Newton at the Management and Social Science Congress. In part, it’s a cautionary tale of obsession and avarice, but it’s also a story of vision and genius. 
NEWTON is excited to welcome Professor Cornelis J. Schilt, an expert on Isaac Newton from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, to give a talk entitled ‘Confessions of a workaholic: the authentic Isaac Newton as an entrepreneur’. During this week’s Management and Social Science Congress, Schilt will share fascinating insights into the lesser-known side of Isaac Newton's life, shedding light on his entrepreneurial endeavours and exploring how they related to his intellectual achievements.

As Schilt will explain, Newton was not only a brilliant scientist and mathematician: his professional interests spanned fields as diverse as theology, alchemy, astronomy, and even industrial production. Once engaged with a subject, Newton pursued it single-mindedly, exploring it with passion and commitment, following the path wherever it led. “Central to Newton’s character was the idea that everything you do should be done as efficiently as possible. If you set yourself a task, you have to give yourself to it fully,” says Schilt.

Today, Newton’s genius is undisputed. His Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (also known as the Principia), which contains his famous laws of motion, is the bedrock on which classical mechanics is built, and is considered one of the most important works in the history of science. The book also made him a celebrity in his day: “From peasant to president of the Royal Society. Quite the rise, and basically all based on one book, the Principia,” says Schilt.  

Yet, as an historian, it’s important to Schilt that we understand Newton in a fuller context. There is at least one example of a time he stole work from a fellow scientist: “I think that it shows that he was human. Of course I condemn such behaviour and it's a black page in Newton's biography. This is not how one should behave as an entrepreneur. But it does show the two aspects of his character: one is the nasty one, the mean one that says ‘I take what I want’, but the other thing it shows is that he's willing to go very far to achieve what he wants and to pursue a particular idea. And that's something that can be praised, I think. But there is a limit.”
As a university that takes inspiration from Newton's example, we hope that our students are motivated by his dedication and commitment, rather than by all of his methods. His example of intertwining academic excellence with a thirst for innovation is emulated in our teaching philosophy, and one of the reasons our university bears his name. By encouraging students to think creatively about how to apply academic knowledge to real-world problems, we aim to prepare the next generation of leaders to drive progress and positive change.

Vice Chancellor Anna Plechatá Krausová explains, “Newton, among his many achievements, changed science, the entire way of thinking, and thus the society of his time. And he didn’t do it by locking himself in an academic bubble. For us, this makes him an enduring inspiration and a source of energy for discovering new ways of doing things.”

Professor Schilt's talk promises to be a thought-provoking and inspiring exploration of Isaac Newton's life and legacy, highlighting the many facets of his character and achievements that are often overlooked. For anyone interested in entrepreneurship, scientific discovery, or intellectual history, it's an event not to be missed.