Ken Corr

Lessons from the 1665 Pandemic

It is day 176 for me of working from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and there is currently no end in sight.  There is still no vaccine and no treatment and so, we wait, and we develop new routines for work and leisure.  I think we are all looking forward to being able to go to the grocery store without a mask, return to stadiums full of people for ball games and concerts, and have a normal work schedule in the office with our coworkers.  We can lament and complain about the current circumstance, or we can use the time as an opportunity.  It’s all about perspective.

Let me give an example.  The year was 1665.  A pandemic was ravaging England and Europe.  Cambridge University sent their students home to quarantine.  A sophomore student was sent home and for the next two years, quarantined in his parents’ attic, away from school, friends, and social life. During those two years, alone in the attic, he continued to research and develop his mind.  He wrote extensively in his journal.  He performed experiments.  At one point, he drilled a small hole in his roof so that a small beam of sunlight streamed through and he used prisms to conduct experiments.  He wrote out mathematical equations that interested him.  He did this for two years, without any certainty of when the pandemic would end.

We now know the pandemic as the Bubonic plague, and it killed a quarter of the population of London.  When the plague was over in 1667 and the students were allowed to return to school, that young sophomore brought his journal and experiments with him.  His studies were published.  His mathematics experiments became what we now call Calculus; his work with prisms and the light beam in his ceiling became what we now call optics.  But he is best known work during that period of social isolation is known as the theory of gravity.  The young student’s name was Isaac Newton.

His example inspires me.  I have to admit that I often complain about our current circumstances.  But his example makes me want to use this time to be creative and to develop myself as much as possible.  Maybe, just maybe, this time of social isolation can be a gift.   It’s all about perspective.


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