Wilson Schmidt Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Beyond the plenitude of misery and suffering that pandemics bring down on humanity, occasionally they contribute to the betterment of humankind by (inadvertently) boosting creative activity that leads to knowledge, and not just in epidemiology. A case in point is that of Isaac Newton and the pandemic of 1665-6.
Born in 1642 (on Christmas day – old Julian calendar) in the small village of Woolsthorpe Manor, southeast of Nottingham, England, Isaac Newton had a very difficult childhood. He lost his father, also named Isaac, a farmer, three months before he was born; his mother, Hannah, married again when he was 3 years old and moved away with her second husband to start a new family; he was brought up by his maternal grandmother until the age of 10, when his mother returned, after her second husband died, with three young kids in tow.
At age 12, Isaac was enrolled in the King’s School in Grantham [where Margaret Thatcher was born], 8 miles away from home, where he boarded at the home of the local pharmacist. During the first two years at King’s School, he was an average student, but after a skirmish with a schoolyard bully, he took his revenge by distinguishing himself, or so the story goes! After that episode, Isaac began to exhibit an exceptional aptitude for constructing mechanical contraptions, such as windmills, dials, water-clocks, and kites. His mother, however, had other ideas and took young Isaac out of school at age 16 to attend the farm she inherited from the second husband. Isaac was terrible at farming, and after a year the headmaster of King’s School, Mr. Stokes, lectured Hannah to allow a promising pupil to return to school, and took Isaac to board in his own home. It was clear to both that young Isaac was not cut out to herd sheep and shovel dung. After completing the coursework in Latin, Greek and some mathematics, Newton was accepted at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, in 1661, at an age close to 19, somewhat older than the other students due to his skirmish with farming. For the first three years, he did not pay tuition by having to work in the College’s kitchen, diner and housekeeping, but by 1664 he showed adequate promise to be awarded a scholarship guaranteeing him four more years to complete his MA degree. As an undergraduate Isaac spent most of his time in solitary intellectual pursuits, which, beyond the prescribed Aristotelian texts, included reading in diverse subjects in a conscious attempt to supplement his education with reading extra-curricular books that attracted his curiosity, in history, philosophy – Rene Descartes in particular – and astronomy, such as the works of Galileo and Thomas Street through whom he learned about Kepler’s work; many scholars attribute Newton’s passion for mathematics to Descartes’s Geometry. He completed his BA degree in 1665 without displaying any scholarly promise that he would become the most celebrated scientist of all time. That was to be changed by a pandemic!
The bubonic plague of 1665-6 ravaged London, killing more than 100,000 residents (25% of its population), and rapidly spread throughout the country. Like most universities, Cambridge closed its doors and the majority of its students return to their family residence in the countryside to isolate themselves and avoid the plague. Isaac, an undistinguished BA student from Cambridge University, returned to Woolsthorpe, where he began a most creative period of assimilating what he has learned during his studies and devoting ample time to reflect on subjects of great interest to him, including mathematics, philosophy, and physics, that he could not devote sufficient time to during his coursework at Cambridge. These two years of isolation turned out to be the most creative years of his life. Newton’s major contributions to science and mathematics, including his work in Optics, the laws of motion and universal gravitation, as well as the creation of infinitesimal calculus, can be traced back to these two years of incredible ingenuity and originality, and their importance for science can only be compared with Einstein’s 1904-1905 Annus Mirabilis.
Newton returned to Cambridge in the Autumn of 1667 with notebooks filled with ideas as well as solved and unsolved problems. Soon after, he was elected a Minor Fellow of Trinity College. Newton completed his MA in 1668 during which he began interacting with Isaac Barrow, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, an accomplished mathematician in his own right with important contributions in geometry and optics, whom he failed to impress as an undergraduate. He handed Barrow a set of notes on the generalized binomial theorem and various applications of his newly minted fluxions (modern differential calculus) developed during the two years in Woolsthorpe. After a short period of discoursing with Newton, Barrow realized the importance of his young student’s work. Soon after that Barrow retired from the Lucasian chair in 1669, recommending Newton, age 26, to succeed him. Newton’s ideas during the next 30 years as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics changed the way we understand the physical world we live in.
One wonders how the history of science would have unfolded if it were not for the bubonic plague of 1665-6 forcing Newton into two years of isolation to study, contemplate and create!
Aris Spanos (March 2020)
Ed (Mayo) Note: Aris shared with me the case of Newton working during the bubonic plague 2 weeks ago, hearing how unproductive I was. I asked him to write a blogpost on it, and I’m very grateful that he did!