There’s no doubt that modern science owes the 17th century English polymath Sir Isaac Newton some gratitude. You don’t get a whole unit of force named after you for nothing.
But if you’re feeling guilty that your time in isolation hasn’t been as productive as his was reported to have been, go easy on yourself; his Annus Mirabilis wasn’t as mirabilis as you might think.
In a year short on inspiration and big on staring wistfully out of windows in hopes that 2021 has a little less plague, smoke, and partisan politics, we can’t blame some science celebrity types for trying to paint a silver lining on events.
Earlier this year, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted this nugget of history in his usual humorous fashion.
Not to be outdone, Richard Dawkins offered the same snippet of trivia just recently.
To give a bit more background, Isaac Newton was a fresh-faced student in his early 20s attending Trinity College at the University of Cambridge when bubonic plague forced his school to shut down in 1665.
So back home he went, where for the next year or so he spent his downtime being a general genius, pumping out revelation after revelation. Exactly what he did depends on whom you ask, but it often includes mentions of gravity, forces, optics, and calculus.
It’s a tale that’s been repeated often over the years, but now that we’re all getting first-hand experience of a pandemic that will go down in history, Newton’s story has been doing the rounds once more.
We all love an inspiring story of discovery, and scientists aren’t immune. But in recounting the story of Newton’s ‘miraculous year’, important details can often be glossed over, in order to focus on the hero’s role.
Newton himself may have considered it a rather productive period. An 1888 publication quotes him listing his achievements in the years 1665 and 1666, claiming “[f]or in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention”.
Even if we don’t go on his word, we can still be confident that his time was well occupied by studies in mathematics. He wrote a summary of everything he’d learned in the October of 1666, which included the seeds of what we now know as calculus. Hardly the work of an idle mind.
But here those glossed-over details become important. Science historian Thony Christie has all of the finer points spelled out at The Renaissance Mathematicus, a blog that is well worth your time reading.
Far from ‘inventing calculus’, Newton spent that time summarising centuries of work on the topic, collating and expanding upon it in a project that would extend far beyond a few pestilence-cursed years.
This isn’t to trivialise the leaps made, or to downplay Newton’s mathematical talents in the field’s development. Rather, it can only be appreciated as a chapter preceded by the works of giants like Archimedes, Bonaventura Cavalieri, Johannes Kepler, and John Wallis.
This is a theme we see repeated in Newton’s other passions. Gorging himself on the works of giants like Descartes, Kepler, Galileo, and Ibn al-Haytham, he tidied, tweaked, and toyed with the thoughts left by previous mathematicians and philosophers.
Many of those tweaks would grow into revolutions. Newton’s insight into the universal nature of gravity (whether or not it was inspired by a falling apple) had consequences far beyond the field of physics, for example. His experiments on the nature of light would figuratively introduce colour to the world.
Those few golden years spent at home, far from Cambridge’s desolate halls, almost certainly helped lay the foundations for future decades of work.
So where’s the lie? If Newton was a busy bee in 1666, why can’t we all draw some inspiration from his endeavours in our own moment of virtuous solitude?
If Isaac Newton is your muse for solving the Hubble constant problem, crunching the twin prime conjecture, and inventing a low-fat brownie that actually tastes good, all before breakfast, all the more power to you.
To Newton, his studies weren’t novel hobbies filling suddenly vacant hours – they were continuations of a passion that persisted beyond a few short years of plague, afforded by the relative privilege he enjoyed, which also included having servants do the household chores.
His interest in the mathematics that contributed to the drawn-out invention of calculus can be traced to frustration over efforts to decipher a book on astrology he’d picked up at a fair. Even the extensive catalogue of topics that would occupy his mind through those years had already been listed in his notes long before there were whispers of plague.
MIT science writer Thomas Levenson summed it up perfectly in an article he wrote earlier this year for The New Yorker:
“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.”
Stories we tell about scientific discovery aren’t merely celebrations of the past, but models of how we perform research today and into the future. We aspire to live up to those expectations, and suffer a sense of failure when we fall short of them.
As much as adversity can bring opportunity, there is no reason to suspect Newton’s time at home was in any way comparable with the isolation many of us face in 2020.
His story deserves to be shared not as a pivotal moment at a bleak time in history, but as a significant link in a chain of enlightenment. One that continues to evolve thanks to the dedication of every single scientist, engineer, and thinker today. Even if they don’t have miraculous years.