How Isaac Newton Made Social Distancing Work for Him
Newton did critical early work while avoiding the plague
Right about now, the phrase “social distancing” is in a lot more people’s vocabularies than it was last week (or last month, or last year). But while the phrase itself might be new, the idea of isolating oneself from all but the most critical of tasks so as to avoid infection during a pandemic is a much older concept. So, take heart, everyone who’s in a self-imposed quarantine: you’re following in the footsteps of some great minds who have engaged in a similar practice.
Among those great minds? Sir Isaac Newton. At The Washington Post, Gillian Brockell explored the period in 1665 when Newton — then a student — went through his own period of social distancing. This was during the time of the Great Plague of London — the same plague that inspired Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.
Newton left Cambridge returned to his family’s home in Cambridge, where he had long stretches of time to work alone on various questions that had been on his mind. While there, he had a breakthrough regarding the nature of motion and gravity — a narrative you might already be familiar with.
But that wasn’t all that Newton accomplished in isolation. According to Brockell’s article, Newton came up with vital early theories of both optics and calculus during this period. All of Newton’s work paid off in a big way:
Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667, theories in hand. Within six months, he was made a fellow; two years later, a professor.
And while not all of us will develop new branches of mathematics or revitalize science, it’s encouraging to be reminded that times of isolation can lead to bold and important thoughts. Who knows? Maybe someone sitting at home right now is about to change the world for the better.
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