97976062

Photo by: Dorling Kindersley

Dorling Kindersley

During a Plague, Newton Discovered Gravity

The world is currently locked in the grip of the deadly novel coronavirus. Around the globe, schools are closed, businesses are shuttered, and families are staying home as much as possible in order to curb the spread of the disease.

April 29, 2020

#SocialDistancing is the new norm, but it’s not the first time humanity has responded in this way to the threat of a nasty germ.

The Plague

The angel of death presides over London during the Great Plague of 1664-1666, holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other. Published in 'The Intelligencer', 26th June 1665. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

75981932

The angel of death presides over London during the Great Plague of 1664-1666, holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other. Published in 'The Intelligencer', 26th June 1665.

Photo by: Hulton Archive

Hulton Archive

The angel of death presides over London during the Great Plague of 1664-1666, holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other. Published in 'The Intelligencer', 26th June 1665.

In 1666, a fresh round of plague swept through London, England. Yes, it was that plague, the Black Death, making its final major appearance on the world stage. In response to the crisis, London and its environments shut down--including the schools and even the University at Cambridge.

In that year, Isaac Newton had recently graduated. He had won a sort of scholarship that would have allowed him to stay at the university for three more years, but due to the shutdown, he went to hang out at his mom’s farm in Lincolnshire. There, free from distractions, he made some of his most powerful insights--like his thoughts regarding falling apples.

Discoveries During Shutdown

92822868

Photo by: Photos.com

Photos.com

According to Newton himself, when he watched an apple fall from a tree, he got a spark of a thought. The apple was falling straight down, not sideways. That meant that whatever the Earth was doing to the apple (let’s go ahead and call it “gravity”), that attraction acted as if it was coming from the dead center of the planet.

Whatever this gravity was, Newton surmised, it might be a property of matter, not something special to the Earth alone. That meant that not only did the Earth have a force of gravity, but so did the apple. And maybe…everything did.

Then Newton Thought Even Bigger

For ages thinkers had thought that the gravity of the Earth was limited to nearby the surface. It made sense: rocks fall but clouds don’t. Newton, with his newfound insight about all things gravity, went all the way: what if the gravity of the Earth extended past the surface, past the clouds, and extended…forever?

It would be a couple more decades after that fateful day until he fully fleshed out his thinking, and what resulted was a true masterpiece: a book called Principia Mathematica (Latin for “Mathematical Principles”). In this book, Newton laid out his laws of motion and his theory of gravity, and was able to use these simple ideas to explain everything from the speed of the Moon in its orbit to the variation of the ocean tides.

It was a work of exceptional genius, without a doubt. Would Newton have ever concocted his theory of gravity without his time at his mom’s? It’s impossible to say; Newton was a smart cookie, for sure, but had a variety of far-flung interests (for example, he spent many years chasing counterfeit coin makers). He may never have had that certain special spark that led to his tremendous insights.

But history is history and what-ifs are what-ifs. The plague came to London in 1666, Cambridge closed, and Newton discovered gravity. I wonder what new insights will come from 2020?

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

Digital Twin Cities Can Shrink the Impact of Planet’s Largest Polluters

Cities are the planet’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, so they offer the greatest opportunity to tackle climate change. Hitting net zero emissions by 2050, a target set at the COP26 summit, could be achieved more quickly using city digital twins – working virtual replicas – that help track, manage and reduce environmental damage rapidly.

London’s River Thames Has Risen From the Dead

Now teeming with life, this once ‘biologically dead’ river is home to sharks, porpoises, and seals.

Scientists Are Resurrecting the Tasmanian Tiger from Extinction

Colossal Biosciences has announced it has begun work on the de-extinction of the thylacine, an iconic Australian marsupial eradicated by human hunting in 1936. Learn how they plan to do it in an exclusive interview with marsupial evolutionary biologist Andrew Pask Ph.D. and Colossal Co-Founder Ben Lamm.

23,000-Year-Old Human Footprints Discovered in America

Ancient human footprints found in New Mexico suggest people may have arrived in the Americas 10,000 years before scientists had previously thought.

2 New Species Of Dinosaurs Found In Northwest China

A tale of two species. Massive sauropod dinosaurs discovered in northwestern China is the region’s first fossil discovery.

What the Missing Antarctic Microbes Mean for Life on Other Planets

Scientists searching for microbes in Antarctica came up with none. What could these findings mean for the possibility of life beyond earth?

Gold Miner Discovers Mummified Baby Woolly Mammoth in Canada

A young miner struck something other than gold while digging in the permafrost of Canada’s Klondike. He stumbled across a 35,000-year-old preserved carcass of a woolly mammoth in impeccable condition.

Global Meltdown: Scientists Race to Gather Crucial Climate Data from Glaciers

Glaciers store a vast amount of important climate data within their frozen rivers of snow and ice. But many of the world’’s 220,000 glaciers are under threat from global warming and are melting at an accelerating rate. Now scientists are in a race to gather long-frozen records of Earth’s past climate from the ice.

244 Million-Year-Old Fossils Discovered in China

These are the oldest fossils of the extinct bony fish, Peltoperleidus, ever to be found, and the first time Peltoperleidus fossils have been found outside of Europe.

The Bacteria Library: One Hundred Years of Infectious Bugs

Britain’s most important bacterial library, the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC) turned 100 this year.