What did Isaac Newton do during quarantine? Hint: He didn’t binge-watch Netflix.

The basics of this story have been floating around since the start of lockdown, so skip ahead if you need to.

In 1665, the bubonic plague broke out in London. By the end of 1666, it’s estimated that 25% of London’s population had died. Meanwhile, the plague also made its way to other cities and villages across England.

That included Cambridge, home to Trinity College, where 23-year-old Isaac Newton was finishing up his undergrad degree.

It would be another 200 years before scientists figured out that bacteria played a role in spreading disease. But even in 1665, they had figured out that human beings in close quarters also played a role.

So Trinity College issued its own social distancing decree and sent the kids home. For two years.

Some students treated this closing like a two-year spring break and pursued pleasurable activities. Times haven’t changed that much, have they?

But not Newton. During his time in lockdown, he developed the ideas that would frame our scientific understanding of the universe:

  • Gravity
  • Calculus
  • Motion of the planets
  • Theory of optics and color

While some of the details can be disputed, Newton probably didn’t fully develop all these ideas during his two years in quarantine. It seems he spent most of his time on optics and color, bending sunlight in his bedroom with a prism. And some of these ideas may have germinated before Newton left Cambridge to ride out the plague at his family’s country home.

Also, we would be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the story about Isaac Newton discovering gravity in an apple orchard when an apple fell on his head. You may recall this tale from grade-school science class. However, it’s probably not factual. But there was an apple orchard and Newton most likely spent some time looking at it from his bedroom window (top right) of his family’s home.

Since March 2020, when many of us were sent home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Newton’s quarantine story has gotten a lot of attention as a parable about productivity and opportunity. It’s also been a useful reframing device as we face the horrible circumstances stemming from our own pandemic.

But Newton’s quarantine tale is also a lesson on mindfulness, which can teach us a lot about our current predicament.

Newton didn’t have Netflix to pacify him. He also didn’t have Zoom meetings stacked up all day long. There was no social media to addict him to tiny dopamine hits. He also came from a relatively well-off family, so he wasn’t wracked with anxiety about whether he’d be able to eat or pay the rent. There was no 24-hour news cycle bombarding him with stories about racism, riots, wildfires or hurricanes.

We’ll never know if Isaac Newton would have produced his great ideas if he hadn’t been in the privileged, peaceful environment he enjoyed during quarantine.

However, there is one thing we do know: Trying to follow Newton’s footsteps with any degree of creativity or concentration doesn’t start with quiet time at home. It starts with quiet time in our brains.

To quiet your brain, it’s helpful to develop mindfulness. To get started, here are five ways to improve mindfulness.

At FEI, we also offer a variety of training opportunities to help improve employee wellness and workplace culture. For more information, please check out our webpage on Organizational Development.