Newton’s quarantine

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Newton's quarantine
Newton's quarantine

Newton’s quarantine at the time of the bubonic plague, back in the 17th century, is remembered as one of the most productive periods in the life of Isaac Newton, as far as science is concerned.

During the plague era, confinement to home and social distancing favored geniuses like Newton who, surrounded by time, tranquility, silence and other elements unbecoming of the hectic social life, made some of his greatest discoveries.

In many places on the planet, people are living under house quarantine because of the Coronavirus epidemic whose psychological and sociological consequences are yet to be seen in the near future. However, many positive things could well emerge from a quarantine.

One of the greatest contributions to physics was made during Newton's quarantine
One of the greatest contributions to physics was made during Newton’s quarantine

Newton’s Quarantine

In Japan there is a unique phenomenon in the world called Hikikomori, where some teenagers decide to lock themselves in their room and not go out for weeks or months. In the West, there are monks or other kinds of people who decide to become anchorites, who isolate themselves from the world for a good part of their lives. But this is the first time in the recent history of mankind that many of us have been forced to remain for a long time in the middle of four walls.

However, perhaps we can draw some motivation from other quarantine stories whose results were more than remarkable, such as the case of Newton who, during the 1665 plague quarantine, made some of his greatest contributions to the world of Physics.

Newton was just over 20 years old when the Great Plague of London struck the city. He was just another college student at Trinity College in Cambridge, and it would be another 200 years before scientists discovered the bacteria that caused the plague. But even without knowing exactly why, people at that time practiced some of the same things we do today to prevent this kind of disease.

To seek social distance, Cambridge sent students home to continue their studies. For Newton, that meant going to Woolsthorpe Manor, the family residence a few miles northwest of Cambridge. He then acquired some prisms and experimented with them in his room, even making a hole in his blinds so that only a small ray of light could pass through. From these observations made in quarantine times, his theories on optics emerged. It was one of the advantages of having plenty of time to meditate and experiment comfortably and without structured classes at the University.

In London, a quarter of the population would die of plague between 1665 and 1666. It was one of the last major outbreaks in the 400 years that the Black Death devastated Europe. Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 with his theories in hand, and two years later he would become a professor at the University where he studied.

It was during a quarantine of the plague in 1605 that William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and King Lear. “The plague was the most powerful force that shaped his life and that of his contemporaries,” wrote Jonathan Bate, one of his many biographers. The plague closed the theatres in London and Shakespeare felt that writing was the best use of his time. “This meant that his days were free, for the first time since the early 1590s, to collaborate with other playwrights,” writes James S. Shapiro in his book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.

Do UFOs exist? Ask the CIA
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Perhaps today we are condemned for a time yet to be determined, to be locked up in four walls, but if we take advantage of this valuable time of forced quarantine in our lives, we can do very valuable and productive things like those that characters like Newton and Shakespeare once did.

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