In the Footsteps of Newton: Synopsis

Seven Hanover College (Indiana) students take a life-changing journey to England to find out how a farm boy from humble origins ends up buried among kings in Westminster Abbey. The students have a combination of interests and double majors with math that connect heavily with Newton's wide range of interests, which gives them insight on the person behind the legend. As they make connections between Newton's story and their own lives, their youthful enthusiasm gives the story an appeal different from documentaries where established experts expound on a topic.

The journey begins on the family farm at Woolsthorpe, where Newton is abandoned as a child to be raised by his grandparents. In Newton's bedroom, the students see his writing on the walls, his confessions on the table, the slit in the shade he used for experiments with light, and his window where he looked up at the stars at night and down at the legendary apple tree that inspired his study of gravity. When Newton goes to school in Grantham, he is often bullied and ostracized. Young students at the school today tell Hanover students how Newton finally got revenge on one of the bullies and decided to study harder so that he would be ahead of the bully in class, and he was never beaten in academics again. During this time, Newton lodges with an alchemist and begins his pursuit of the “philosophers’ stone” which is fascinating for the Hanover chemistry major since alchemy was a precursor to her own field.

Another student investigating Newton's passionate interest in theology visits the village church he attended as a boy, the magnificent church he attended in Grantham with the chained library where he immersed himself in theology, and churches in Cambridge. Since they live in a culture today where science and religion are often at odds, the students are surprised to learn that it is Newton’s interest in religion that spurs his pursuit to understand God and his creation and the role that Christianity had in starting the Scientific Revolution.

Following Newton's journey to Trinity College at Cambridge, they see a struggling new student who has to teach himself everything about mathematics before going on to revolutionize the field. Newton progresses through the years from a socially awkward young man obsessed with his many research interests to a professor revered as one of the most eminent scientists in the kingdom. After 30 years at Trinity College, the genius professor leaves his academic life behind to serve his nation in London as a member of Parliament, and then as Master of the Royal Mint. Newton, who works as obsessively at the mint as he did on his academic research, saves the British economy by transforming the system and cleaning up corruption and counterfeiters.

While in London, the pilgrimage takes a side trip to the British Museum where the Hanover students study the mathematics of ancient civilizations to put Newton’s achievements into historical context. In the last step of the pilgrimage, the student's have a surreal experience when they visit Newton’s final resting place in Westminster Abbey. As they place their hands on his tomb, they have a chance to reflect on mortality and on making their own mark on history.

This film is a collaboration of two courses at Hanover College. The students featured in the documentary are from Dr. Nancy Rodger's History of Math course, while much of the documentary itself is shot on location by students in Elizabeth Winter's Documentary Production course. One of the goals in making the film was to motivate younger students to be more like Newton and get obsessed with something deeper than their cell phones and video games.