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Dictionary of World Biography
these discoveries were not published until 1685
and this caused a bitter ‘priority’ controversy with
*Leibniz. Yet another major discovery was made by
this astonishing young man: he found (1666) that
so-called white light is composed of many colours,
which may be separated by a prism and then
combined into white light again. Having returned
to Cambridge in 1667 he was Lucasian professor of
mathematics 1669–95. He constructed (1668) the
first reflecting (Newtonian) telescope, in which he
used a parabolic mirror to reflect and magnify the
object observed. All of his discoveries were made
by the age of 30. In 1672 he became a fellow of the
Royal Society but more than 12 years elapsed before
he published his findings, and even then it was
only through the eager encouragement and help of
the astronomer *Halley that his great Philosophiae
Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), known as
the Principia, appeared. In this he sought to explain
all physical phenomena by a few generalised laws. The
laws of motion and a systematised study of mechanics
provide a starting point and he goes on to explain the
action of the tides and the orbits of the planets. He
ends by showing the philosophical conclusions to
be deduced from the earlier sections of the work. In
1704 he published his Optics in which he advanced
the corpuscular theory of light, later disproved by
Thomas *Young. Newton was also a student of
alchemy and biological chronology, to which he
appears to have attached as much significance as to
his scientific work.
Newton was President of the Royal Society 1703–27,
MP for Cambridge 1689–90, 1701–02 and received
a knighthood in 1705. His reports on the coinage
(1717 and 1718) resulted from his appointment
(1699) as Master of the Mint. He is buried in
Westminister Abbey and is universally recognised as
one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Newton was
an isolate who never married and quarrelled bitterly
with *Flamsteed, *Hooke and *Boyle.
White, M., Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. 1997.
Ney, Michel (1769–1815). French marshal. Called
by *Napoléon ‘the bravest of the brave’ he was a noncommissioned officer when the Revolution broke
out. He rose quickly and by 1796 was general of a
brigade. He was given the title Duke of Elchingen
by Napoléon for the heroism with which he stormed
the entrenchments in that engagement (1805). He
won further distinction at Jena, Eylau and especially
Friedland, and for the part he played at Smolensk
and Borodin during the advance into Russia (1812),
he was created Prince of Moscow. As leader of the
rear-guard during the disastrous retreat he saved the
remnants of the Grand Army from annihilation.
When Napoléon abdicated (1814) Ney was allowed
by *Louis XVIII to retain a command but when the
emperor again landed (1815) his marshal joined him
with his troops. Ney showed his courage once more in
the Waterloo campaign but was caught when trying to
reach Switzerland after the defeat and, despite efforts
by *Wellington and others to save him, shot as a traitor.
Morton, J. B., Marshal Ney. 1958.
Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963). Vietnamese
politician, born in Annam. Son of a mandarin, and
a Roman Catholic, he became a civil servant and
minister of the interior from 1933. He refused to
cooperate with the Japanese, *Ho Chi Minh or *Bao
Dai, and lived abroad as a virtual recluse 1950–54.
He was Prime Minister of the ‘State of Vietnam’ (i.e.
the South) 1954–55, engineered Bao’s deposition,
succeeding him as President (1955–63), during the
period of open war with the North. AÂ bachelor, his
family aroused great hostility, especially his brother
Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife. Although utterly
dependent on US support, he refused advice,
launched a campaign against the militant Buddhists
and was murdered by army officers, together with
Nhu (November 1963).
Nicholas I and II. Russian tsars see Nikolai I and II
Nicholas, St. This semi-legendary figure, the ‘Santa
Claus’ of nursery lore, seems to have derived his
legends from two historical bishops of Lycia in Asia
Minor: Nicholas of Myra (d.c.326) was venerated
for miraculously saving three generals condemned
to death by *Constantine; Nicholas of Sion (d.564)
was revered throughout the Byzantine Empire and his
cult spread to Russia, of which he became the patron
saint. Whatever his origin, the cult of St Nicholas
spread rapidly in the west. Nicholas of Myra was
first buried on the island of Gemile, which became
an important place of pilgrimage (rediscovered in
1993), then buried in Myra. Bari, where his alleged
bones – rescued it is said from the Seljuk Turks –
were brought from Myra, became one of the most
important places of medieval pilgrimage. As well as
being the patron saint of children and the bringer
of gifts on the day of his festival (6 December) his
identification with ‘Father Christmas’ came later. He
was impartially the patron of judges and murderers,
pawnbrokers, merchants and thieves and especially
scholars and sailors.
Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). German theologian,
mathematician and philosopher. Son of a Moselle
boatman, he was nevertheless able to study at
Heidelberg and Padua universities and presented to
the Council of Basle (1413) his ideas (contained in
On Catholic Concord but afterwards abandoned) on
reforming the Church by giving a general council
supremacy over the Pope. He also presented calendar
reforms derived from his mathematical studies, which
he pursued with the aim of arriving at exact truth.
He did not, as scholars once claimed, anticipate
*Copernicus’s conclusion that the earth revolves
round the sun. After acting as papal legate in Germany
1440–47 he was made a cardinal (1448).
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