Year of Wonders 1665-1667
Whilst escaping the Great Plague, Newton’s enormously productive time at Woolsthorpe is often called the Annus Mirabilis, or the “Year of Wonders’. Read about this period of intellectual endeavour, with extracts taken from the new Woolsthorpe guidebook by Patricia Fara.
As coronavirus spreads around the globe, most of us are experiencing a new normal, from countries in lockdown to people practising social distancing. The similarity between the situation Isaac Newton found himself in Cambridge in 1665 and society today is striking.
Between the summer of 1665 and the spring of 1667, Isaac Newton made two long visits to Woolsthorpe in order to escape the plague affecting Cambridge. The bubonic ‘Great Plague’ of 1665–6 was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348.
It spread rapidly throughout the country. London lost roughly 15% of its population and the villagers of Eyam, Derbyshire, became infamous for their heroic quarantine to halt the spread of the disease.
Many town-dwellers, like Newton, retreated to the relative safety of the countryside. What is different is how he set his mind to work in this period. Whilst most of us are unlikely to come up with theories that change science and the world as we know it, it is inspiring what can be achieved, even in periods of isolation and change.
In later life, Newton stressed that these enforced absences were the most intellectually fruitful of his whole life:
" For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since. "
These were intense periods of intellectual endeavour at Woolsthorpe. Freed from the restrictions of the limited curriculum and rigours of university life, Newton had the time and space to develop his theories on calculus, optics and the laws of motion and gravity.
Newton worked obsessively to further his understanding of light, obtaining a prism
" to try therewith the celebrated phenomena of colours."
At the time, people believed that glass prisms – often sold as novelties or used in chandeliers – changed white light into a coloured spectrum like a rainbow.
It is believed that he undertook his key experiment in his chamber at Woolsthorpe. Records tell us that the experiment took place in a room measuring 22 feet from the south-facing shutter to the wall on which the coloured spectrum fell, as does the room which has long been known as Newton’s chamber.
Newton bored a tiny hole in the wooden shutters so that only a very thin pencil of light could enter the darkened room. Newton’s crucial innovation was to take a second prism and put it in the path of a single-coloured beam coming from the first prism. When it emerged from the other side of the second prism, this ray was still the same colour, thus proving that the glass medium had not altered it.
Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation
In this period of intellectual contemplation, Newton’s holistic approach enabled him to address the question ‘How does the universe work?’ Newton himself told the story that when he watched an apple fall from the tree outside his chamber window, he questioned why it falls straight to the ground.
In answering that question, Newton theorised that everything in existence is attracted to everything else and this attraction, the force of gravity, ties the universe together.
Years later he would publish his theories and share how this vision could be expressed in a mathematical formula, as relevant now as it was then.
Not fully occupied with working on the problems of light or finding the glue that holds the whole universe together, Newton continued to tackle the mathematical problems that he had been contemplating at Cambridge.
Never shy of an intellectual challenge. Newton deliberately chose particularly complicated topics – his niece’s husband, John Conduitt, commented that Newton:
" began with the most crabbed studies . . . like a high spirited horse who must be first broke in plowed grounds & the roughest & steepest ways or could otherwise be kept within no bounds."
By the end of 1666 Newton had completed three papers on fluxions (early calculus), which was the culmination of his most intensive period of mathematical creativity.
Isaac Newton returned to university life at Cambridge. Six months later he was elected as a Minor Fellow of Trinity College and two years later he was appointed as the second Lucasian Professor. With his academic position and income secure, he continued to develop his ideas and research from Woolsthorpe Manor.
Acknowledgement & passages taken from: Dr Patricia Fara - Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor