A. Spanos:  Isaac Newton and his two years in quarantine:  how science could germinate in bewildering ways (Guest post)


Aris Spanos
Wilson Schmidt Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Virginia Tech

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!

Categories: quarantine, Spanos

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14 thoughts on “A. Spanos:  Isaac Newton and his two years in quarantine:  how science could germinate in bewildering ways (Guest post)

  1. This is a nice reminder that good can come from the most unexpected direction. Of course, Newton did not have the benefit of the web and modern communication technology such as emails enabling him to keep in touch and continue with his job from afar ….
    Having said that, another good which is becoming apparent is a raised public awareness and appreciation of science.

    • Aris Spanos

      David: I greatly appreciate your comment, and I totally agree that the recent fumbles by politicians are likely to raise public awareness and appreciation of science.

    • David:
      Thank you for your comment from London. True, he didn’t have the benefit of keeping in touch remotely, but then again, he wasn’t obligated to continue his coursework by zoom or other technological means, as many are. There’s also the fact that it seems that escaping from London put one out of danger, whereas with covid-19, it’s nearly everywhere. Of course it’s not as killing. I read that households containing infected persons were locked up for 40 days-although no one seems to know why 40.

      I do hope you are right, that this disaster raises the public’s appreciation of good science and the importance of controlled trials. I just wish they were taking much greater advantage of what we can be learning by trying to test random samples both for covid-19 and antibodies.

      • Regarding the length of time being 40 days for households to be locked up in medieval times:

        It is my understanding that modern estimates for infection with bubonic plague are an incubation period of 32 days, with death following between 2 and 5 days, for a total of about 37 days from infection until death. This is a long time interval. Mandatory isolation was extended from 37 to 40 days in Italian city-states, which is the origin of the term quarantine. It is derived from the Italian word quaranta, which means ‘forty.”

        • rkenett

          Ellie – apparently the term was used to describe a condition of ships, not households. In the1660s, quarantine is mentioned as a “period a ship suspected of carrying disease is kept in isolation,”, indeed from Italian quaranta giorni. So called from the Venetian policy (first enforced in 1377) of keeping ships from plague-stricken countries waiting off its port for 40 days to assure that no latent cases were aboard. https://www.etymonline.com/word/quarantine

    • rkenett

      David – yes, science has an opportunity to make relevant and efficacious contributions. I believe that it is however to soon to make a call on this. For the first time in history, governments, fed by scientific advice, have put a hold on economies, globally. The impact of this is yet unknown. Projections are that it will surpass, by order of magnitudes, the impact of wars. Other aspects of this are the non alarmist projections. A Nobel laureate was nightly on Israeli TV a few weeks ago, showing calculations predicting less than 10 Corona related fatalities. Today’s toll was 25 and the guy has not been on TV since then.

      Moreover, I believe the replicability crisis will also spill over to epidemiological forecasts. Neil Fergusson’s simulations are apparently based on a 13 years old code and undocumented. In other words, replicability here is difficult, to say the least. There are also rising ethical issues. In Italy, hospitals have no access to nationally collected data. In spite of that, some scientists close to the authorities, have published it in JAMA and Nature. They get the credit, hospitals are left in the dark. So, yes, science has an opportunity to make relevant and efficacious contributions. I hope it will. I expect however that there will be lots of dirty clothes washing once we get out of this science fiction movie.

      As you wrote in the foreword of our information quality book, we need to be attentive to information quality, now more than ever.

      • Ron: Hopefully people will see the importance of questioning claims for which there’s bad evidence, no test (BENT). We are being presented with ample information as to how we might be wrong in accepting a claim, and we should build up our repertoires of errors.

        • rkenett

          Mayo – nothing happens by itself. What you describe will happen if it is stated and communicated. I am trying to do that by emphasizing information quality. BENT is certainly part of that. The recent article by Brian Haig is doing that (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.metip.2020.100020).

  2. Thanks for posting this fascinating, inspiring and relevant historical anecdote. We are wired to worry, but Newton shows us that we use the inconvenient “stay-at-home” days for redirecting our use of time, re-evaluating our values, and renewing our creative wellsprings.

  3. John Byrd

    I sent this link to our 100+ team of scientists who must try to telework, with very limited access to the lab. This is the perfect story to share. Thanks very much for posting it.

    • John: Great to hear from you! As it happens, when I was looking for a picture for this post, I came across an article that discussed how bone analysis was involved in conclusively identifying the causal agent in bubonic plague, and I thought of sending it to you. Now I can’t find it again. That’s another way the case links with your work–something you’re probably well aware of.

      • The other thing I discovered in looking for the bone analysis on bubonic plague (to send John Byrd) is that there appears to be a lot of controversy as to the cause of the “black death” in Europe and other places prior to the bubonic plague of 1664-5. The latter is traced to an infected flea.
        Someone I know from twitter remarked that China had some cases of pneumonic plague (which differs from bubonic) in Nov of 2019, which surely has nothing to do with Covid-19, the former being a bacteria infection, also resulting from the flea infection, but spread from person to person. An article in Vox is:

      • I think I found the article. It confirms that DNA and protein signatures specific for Yersina pestis (bubonic plague) in 76 human skeletons from mass graves in Europe that were associated archaeologically with the Black Death. The analysis was based on both bones and teeth. This is the linked title, Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death (2010), full text.

        • Ellie: Thank you for looking for the article based on bone analysis. It’s not the one I came across because mine had pictures of bones and skeletons. I wasn’t, initially, reading through articles, but looking for a picture. Enough of the contents crossed my eye, however, to glean that there’s a controversy about the cause of Black death in contrast to the bubonic plague in Newton’s day. Can you shed light on this? There are arguments that the black plague was transmitted by humans, not fleas carried by infected rats, this despite finding evidence of yersinia pestis on some remains. Arguments are based on rapidity of spread over distances in very different climates. It is argued, by some, that it was actually a virus of some sort. I was very surprised to find a controversy on this.

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