Newton’s death mask scanned in 3D

01 October 2012

These are the results of the first ever 3D scan of Newton’s death mask. Newton was an English physicist and mathematician, and arguably the greatest scientist of his era. This mask was prepared shortly after his death to serve as a likeness for future sculptures. It is now held in the archives of the Royal Society, of which Newton was President at the time of his death. These images were created by the Cambridge Microsoft Research Laboratory, using a Kinect peripheral camera which is normally used with an Xbox games console.

This death mask is one of several prepared shortly after Newton’s death. The artist who made it is not known, but this version was owned by the 18th century French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac, who used it to carve a marble bust of Newton and to make the famous statue in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge. It was sold at an auction of the contents of Roubiliac’s studio in 1762 and remained unnoticed in a sculpture dealer’s shop until found by Samuel Hunter Christie FRS in 1839 and donated to the Royal Society.

Martyn Poliakoff FRS, the Royal Society’s Foreign Secretary, also had his head scanned. The results can be seen below and a video showing how both scans were created can be seen here.

Newton’s single greatest work, Principia Mathematica was published in 1687. It showed how a universal force, gravity, applied to all objects in all parts of the universe. Principia is generally considered to be one of the most important scientific books ever written and assisted in setting standards for scientific publication to the present day. As well as discovering gravity, Newton also built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of colour based on the observation that a prism spilts white light into the many colours that form the visible spectrum. Newton shares the credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of differential and integral calculus.

After achieving appointments such as Member of Parliament and warden of the Royal Mint, in 1703 Newton was elected President of the Royal Society, an office he held until his death. He was knighted in 1705 and he died on 31 March 1727. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.