Isaac Newton Conceived of His Most Groundbreaking Ideas During the Great Plague of 1665

Whether you’ve vol­un­teered to self-quar­an­tine, or have done so from neces­si­ty, health experts world­wide say home is the best place to be right now to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For some this means lay­offs, or remote assign­ments, or an anx­ious and indef­i­nite stay­ca­tion. For oth­ers it means a loss of safe­ty or resources. No mat­ter how much choice we had in the mat­ter, there are those among us who har­bor ambi­tious fan­tasies of using the time to final­ly fin­ish labors of love, whether they be cro­chet, com­pos­ing sym­phonies, or writ­ing a con­tem­po­rary nov­el about a plague.

Many life­sav­ing dis­cov­er­ies have been made in the wake of epi­demics, and many a nov­el writ­ten, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, com­posed three years after an out­break of bubon­ic plague in Alge­ria. Offer­ing even more of a chal­lenge to house­bound writ­ers is the exam­ple of Shake­speare, who wrote some of his best works dur­ing out­breaks of plague in Lon­don, when “the­aters were like­ly closed more often than they were open,” as Daniel Pol­lack-Pelzn­er writes at The Atlantic, and when it was alleged that “the cause of plagues are plays.”

You can for­give your­self for tak­ing a few days to orga­nize your clos­ets, or—let’s be real—binge on snacks and Net­flix series. But if you’re still look­ing for a role mod­el of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in a time of quar­an­tine, you couldn’t aim high­er than Isaac New­ton. Dur­ing the years 1665–67, the time of the Great Plague of Lon­don, Newton’s “genius was unleashed,” writes biog­ra­ph­er Philip Steele. “The pre­cious mate­r­i­al that result­ed was a new under­stand­ing of the world.”

In Shakespeare’s case, only decades ear­li­er, the “plagues may have caused plays”—spurring poet­ry, fan­ta­sy, and the epic tragedies of King Lear, Mac­beth, and Antony and Cleopa­tra. New­ton too was appar­ent­ly inspired by cat­a­stro­phe.

These years of Newton’s life are some­times known in Latin as anni mirabilies, mean­ing “mar­velous years.” How­ev­er, they occurred at the same time as two nation­al dis­as­ters. In June 1665, the bubon­ic plague broke out in Lon­don…. As the plague spread out into the coun­try­side, there was pan­ic. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty was closed. By Octo­ber, 70,000 peo­ple had died in the cap­i­tal alone.

New­ton left Cam­bridge for his home in Wool­sthor­pe. The fol­low­ing year, the Great Fire of Lon­don dev­as­tat­ed the city. As hor­ri­fy­ing as these events were for the thou­sands who lived through them, “some of those dis­placed by the epi­dem­ic,” writes Stephen Porter, “were able to put their enforced break from their nor­mal rou­tines to good effect.” But none more so than New­ton, who “con­duct­ed exper­i­ments refract­ing light through a tri­an­gu­lar prism and evolved the the­o­ry of colours, invent­ed the dif­fer­en­tial and inte­gral cal­cu­lus, and con­ceived of the idea of uni­ver­sal grav­i­ta­tion, which he test­ed by cal­cu­lat­ing the motion of the moon around the earth.”

Right out­side the win­dow of Newton’s Wool­sthor­pe home? “There was an apple tree,” The Wash­ing­ton Post writes. “That apple tree.” The apple-to-the-head ver­sion of the sto­ry is “large­ly apoc­ryphal,” but in his account, Newton’s assis­tant John Con­duitt describes the idea occur­ring while New­ton was “mus­ing in a gar­den” and con­ceived of the falling apple as a mem­o­rable illus­tra­tion. New­ton did not have Net­flix to dis­tract him, nor con­tin­u­ous scrolling through Twit­ter or Face­book to freak him out. It’s also true he prac­ticed “social dis­tanc­ing” most of his life, writ­ing strange apoc­a­lyp­tic proph­e­sies when he wasn’t lay­ing the foun­da­tions for clas­si­cal physics.

Maybe what New­ton shows us is that it takes more than extend­ed time off in a cri­sis to do great work—perhaps it also requires that we have dis­ci­pline in our soli­tude, and an imag­i­na­tion that will not let us rest. Maybe we also need the leisure and the access to take pen­sive strolls around the gar­den, not some­thing essen­tial employ­ees or par­ents of small chil­dren home from school may get to do. But those with more free time in this new age of iso­la­tion might find the changes forced on us by a pan­dem­ic actu­al­ly do inspire the work that mat­ters to them most.

via The Wash­ing­ton Post

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Myth­i­cal ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Dig­i­tized & Put Online (Along with His Oth­er Alche­my Man­u­scripts)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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