The Great Contributions of Isolation to Science
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly the entire world has entered a period of intense isolation. People are not allowed on the streets, spending their days in their homes, or even in their rooms. For many of us, this is very difficult to endure. However, I am sure that some among us are taking advantage of this isolation, this alone time, to journey into their inner worlds, develop new ideas and new approaches, and perhaps find solutions to important problems hidden away in the back of their minds. The history of science was written with these “inner journeys.” In this article, I will present two important scientists and the periods of isolation they experienced.
Our first hero is Charles Darwin. Darwin, whose father and grandfather were among the most prominent physicians of their time, initially started studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. However, he soon realized that he could not study medicine, which greatly disappointed his father, and transferred to Christ’s College at Cambridge to become a clergyman. Darwin was also unfulfilled at Christ’s College, and his inner journey began when at age 22 he took employment on the HMS Beagle, the ship charged with conducting a survey of the coasts of South America. This expedition was planned to be 2 years, but actually lasted nearly 5 years. Along with several botanical books he took with him and Lyell’s important work, Principles of Geology, which was a gift to Darwin from the ship’s captain, he lived an isolated life in his small cabin when he was not on land. In later years, Darwin would say that it was during those days he spent away from everyone in that small cabin that he developed the theory of evolution and laid the foundations of his work, On the Origin of Species, which would change the world history of science.
Isaac Newton, a fellow Cambridge alumnus, experienced a similar period of isolation. In fact, his days in isolation were much more similar to what we are experiencing today. In 1661, Newton started attending Trinity College in Cambridge, where he took courses on algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, and learned Latin and Ancient Greek. Although he studied diligently and enjoyed his lessons, he never enjoyed academic success or recognition. However, the course of Newton’s life (and perhaps of human history) changed in 1665 when the Great Plague hit London. In August 1665, all schools in London were closed, curfew was declared, and people were forced to stay in their homes. Newton moved with his mother to their farmhouse in Woolsthorpe, where he had spent his childhood, and he confined himself to his study for nearly two years. During this period, Newton discovered the laws of gravity, laid the foundations of differential and integral calculus, and held a prism in sunlight to make a spectrum and realize that white light was not a single unit. Newton’s years of isolation also saw the groundwork laid for his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which would later be considered the most important work in the world history of science.
Unfortunately, Darwin’s famous ship, HMS Beagle, did not survive to the present day; it was beached and dismantled in 1870. However, the name of the ship was bestowed upon a strait at the southernmost tip of the South American continent (Beagle Channel). The progeny of the famous apple tree from the farm where Newton passed his days in isolation now survives in the garden of Harvard University, one of the most important scientific institutions in the world. I am sure that this summer, Newton’s tree will produce an even more beautiful apple, "by virtue of the days it passed in isolation."
1. McClellan JE, Dorn H. Science and Technology in World History. Johns Hopkins University Press 1999.
2. Henry J. A Short History of Scientific Thought. MacMillan Publisher 2011.