The Truth About Isaac Newton’s Productive Plague
On July 25, 1665, a five-year-old boy named John Morley, of the parish of the Holy Trinity in Cambridge, England, was found dead in his home. When town officials examined his corpse, they noted black spots on his chest, the unmistakable mark of the bubonic plague. Morley was the first known case and death from the disease in Cambridge that year: the signal that London’s outbreak that spring had advanced to the city.
Almost at once, the townspeople raced to isolate themselves in the countryside. Among those on the run: a young scholar of Trinity College named Isaac Newton. Newton’s home, a farm called Woolsthorpe, lay about sixty miles north of the university. Suitably distant from the nearest town, it was where, in near total solitude, he would invent calculus, create the science of motion, unravel gravity, and more. The plague created the conditions in which modern science could be created. Or so the story goes.
Now, with the spread of the coronavirus imposing its own isolation, Newton’s miracle year is being touted as a model. This cheery piece in the Washington Post is typical of many articles circulating right now: “So if you’re working or studying from home over the next few weeks, perhaps remember the example Newton set.” Social media, naturally, has been more extreme. Get that novel written, or that screenplay, and, if you don’t, you should at least refocus your life and find your purpose. If not, you’ve failed the take-home epidemic exam. Newton could shift the universe. Shouldn’t we be able to organize our closets?
No. Partly because none of us, along with almost everyone in human history, will ever approach his level of achievement. But, more deeply, the idea that the plague woke the brilliance in Newton is both wrong and misleading as a measure of how well we apply ourselves during our own plague spring. The apple-falling-on-the-head element is part of the problem. There really was an apple tree across the lane from Newton’s front door; a little orchard still grows there.
Newton himself, very late in life, told the story. He was contemplating his tree one day when he realized that the moon in its orbit and the apple on its bough were subject to the same forces in nature. It’s easy to leap from that old man’s memory to the notion that the quiet of the countryside sparked the birth of whole new provinces of knowledge. This is the popular fairy tale of genius: great ideas don’t require the tedious work of sustained attention and hard thinking; they arrive in lightning bolts of inspiration, which in turn come only in the right circumstances, like enforced isolation during an epidemic.
This much is true: during his nearly two years down on the farm, Newton produced an unbelievable number of exceptional results. He created major new insights across vital areas of mathematics—what became calculus, the mathematics of change, and analytical geometry.
He created new physics as he used his mathematical discoveries to analyze motion through space and time. He performed experiments to measure gravity’s pull, and then began shaping his most famous idea: universal gravitation, the theory that would connect every object in the cosmos to the flight of that famous apple from bough to ground. He also stuck a needle in his own eye as part of his quest to understand how light and lenses work. All that, while secluded on a remote patch of dirt in Lincolnshire.
But what’s specious is the idea that Newton unleashed his mind on these problems once the plague had given him the gift of solitude. As his definitive biographer, Richard Westfall, meticulously documented in “The Life of Isaac Newton,” Newton had begun to think about the most pressing questions in science while still studying for his exams in his rooms at Trinity College during the year before the plague struck.
A document written in Newton’s hand lists the problems that he was trying to solve. Among them, as Westfall writes, were “matter, place, time, and motion…the cosmic order, then…light, colors, vision,” and the list continued on through questions that he would pursue for the next two decades. The year before the plague, 1664, was also when Newton first began to think deeply about mathematics, and to discover in himself the exceptional talent for abstract reasoning that would flourish when he reached his farmhouse. He tackled key problems that would lead toward calculus in the autumn and winter, while going some distance toward inventing a new approach to geometry, all months before he left Cambridge.
Similarly, when the epidemic finally burned itself out, in 1666, Newton kept on doing the same kind of work when he returned to his rooms just to the right of Trinity’s Great Gate. His crucial experiments with prisms, which showed how “white” sunlight is actually composed of the distinct colors of the rainbow, began in the late sixteen-sixties.
He continued to revolutionize geometry; he would develop his theory of gravity in fits and starts for years before fully realizing it, only in the sixteen-eighties. Whatever may have enabled Newton to produce epic works of genius during, before, and after his enforced isolation, the retreat to the country itself couldn’t have been the decisive difference. Newton himself said as much. When asked how worked out gravity, he replied, “By thinking on it continually.”
Doing the work was what mattered, and Newton did it as a student in Cambridge before the plague; he persisted at Woolsthorpe; and he kept going upon his return to college. He wrote much later, referring to the plague years, that he had been “in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematicks & Philosophy more than at any time since.” That prime lasted for half a decade at least.
Newton was able to do what he did not because of where he happened to find himself during the plague but because of who he was—one of the handful of greatest mathematicians and natural philosophers of all time, who, for several years, was able to do almost nothing else with his time but think, reason, and calculate. Against that history, telling yourself as you shelter in place that now is the time to emulate Newton’s ambition is not so helpful. Not because his is an impossible standard (though it is) but because the real lesson is to remember whatever aspect of your life that fired your passion before this mess—and to keep stoking it now.