Friday, 3 April 2020

How Isaac Newton Turned Isolation From the Great Plague Into a “Year of Wonders”

Here's one measure of the scale of this pandemic. Since its establishment eight-hundred years ago, in the year of our lord 1208, England's Cambridge University has been shut down just twice. Once, in the 1660s, for plague. And again just three weeks ago, for this pandemic.
The ‘Great Plague’ of 1665–6 was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348.  As “social distancing” orders emptied campuses throughout England, young student Isaac Newton, a 24-year-old student from Cambridge, was among those forced to leave campus and return indefinitely to his childhood home. As Kerry McDonald explains in this guest post, it became his "year of wonders"....

Isaac Newton, 1642-1727, widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all
time and as a key figure in the Enlightenment and scientific revolution.
[Portrait of Newton at 46 by Godfrey Kneller, 1689.  Wikimedia Commons]

How Isaac Newton Turned Isolation From the Great Plague Into a “Year of Wonders”

University students around the world left campus this month, unsure when they would return and what daily life would look like until then. Forced to leave their friends and classmates behind and return to their childhood bedrooms, young people, who on average are less impacted by COVID-19’s dire health effects, may understandably feel angry and resentful. Free and independent, with their futures full of possibility, these students are now home and isolated. It can seem wholly unfair and depressing. But the story of another college student in a similar predicament might provide some hope and inspiration.
Isaac Newton's Quarantine Experience

In 1665, “social distancing” orders emptied campuses throughout England, as the bubonic plague raged, killing 100,000 people (roughly one-quarter of London’s population), in just 18 months. A 24-year-old student from Trinity College, Cambridge was among those forced to leave campus and return indefinitely to his childhood home.

His name was Isaac Newton and his time at home during the epidemic would be called his “year of wonders.”

Many town-dwellers, like Newton, retreated to the relative safety of the countryside. What is different is how he set his mind to work in this period. Whilst most of us are unlikely to come up with theories that change science and the world as we know it, it is inspiring what can be achieved, even in periods of isolation and change.

Previously undistinguished as a student, away from university life and unbounded by curriculum constraints and professor’s whims, Newton dove headfirst into discovery. “Without his professors to guide him, Newton apparently thrived.” At home, he built bookshelves and created a small office for himself, filling a blank notebook with his ideas and calculations. Absent the distractions of typical daily life, Newton’s creativity flourished. During this time away he explored optics, experimenting with prisms and investigating light; he discovered the differential and integral calculus; and he formulated a theory of universal gravitation that encompassed the whole known universe!

Newton biographer James Gleick writes: “The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.” And its foremost scientist.

Newton himself would say about this forced time away from university life:
"For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since."
The Great Plague eventually ended and Newton returned to Trinity College to complete his studies, becoming a fellow and ultimately a professor. The discoveries he made during his time away from campus, though, would form the foundation of his historic career for years to come and become some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs.

This is a trying time for all of us, as our lives are upended and our routines are disrupted due to the pandemic. There is much to despair about. But this could also be a time for reflection and discovery. The sudden change to the rhythm of our days, and the associated isolation, could unleash our imaginations and inventiveness in ways that might have been impossible under ordinary circumstances.

Rather than being a nadir, this “social distancing” experience could be the peak of your creativity and production. This could be the time when you formulate your greatest ideas and do your best work. This could be your own year of wonders.

An astronaut from the European Space Agency reads Newton's landmark work on
gravity, Principia Mathematicathat helped make space travel possible.
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Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019). She is also an adjunct scholar at The Cato Institute and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.
This post previously appeared at FEE.


  1. Crikey, I was just filling my time of wonder with Netflix.

  2. Yes, I should have the plan for the overthrow of the Ardern socialist Government ready by next month. It will take men with balls and determination .
    I hope I have not miscalculated .


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