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Newton Invented Calculus While Plague Hit England: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of
The cover jacket of "The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World" by Edward Dolnick. Source: Harper Collins via Bloomberg

March 12 (Bloomberg) -- In 1664, when comets appeared in the English sky, many thought the end was near. As apocalyptic confirmation, then came the bubonic plague.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

It was devastating to London, ultimately killing one fifth of its inhabitants. The wealthy tried fleeing to the countryside, where locals greeted them with muskets and clubs. The city resonated with the tolling of bells and cries of “Bring out your dead!”

When the plague reached the University of Cambridge in 1665, everyone was sent home, including Isaac Newton, who retired to his mother’s farm. There, the 23-year-old student came up with calculus and unlocked the future.

What looked at the time like the end of days turned out to be the dawn of the modern age.

I spoke with Edward Dolnick, author of “The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World,” on the following topics:

1. Fear and Trembling

2. The Royal Society

3. Microscopes and Telescopes

4. Isaac Newton

5. Decoding the World

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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