The Isaac Newton effect

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I got this idea from a Nick Tasler newsletter — learned of Tasler years back when I was writing this post — and it’s potentially pretty cool.

The basic idea is that, in 1665, The Bubonic Plague was raging in England. We did a mid-1600s version of “social distance” and many university students were sent off-campus to shelter-in-place and slow the spread of Bubonic. Isaac Newton, who at the time was about 23–24, was one of these students. His time away from standard university life recharged him, creating “The Year of Wonders,” whereby he discovered differential and integral calculus, formulated a theory of universal gravitation, and experimented with optics.

In short, a lot of how we shape our physical world came from one young back having to shelter in place in the 1600s. Interesting to consider, no?

This is a little bit of the argument you sometimes hear around “UBI” — universal basic income — or even the troubling issues around automation. The theory, which I don’t completely agree with, is that if humans are spending less time on basic stuff like earning paychecks, then they can spend more time on passions and we can enter a new Renaissance. I personally think a lot of people who don’t have to work and are bolstered by government cheese would do the standard stuff around addiction, video games, Reddit, etc. Does that mean I believe in “welfare queens?” No. I think a lot of people need a jump-start and use it right. But I don’t think that happens at scale, really.

That all said, there will probably be an Isaac Newton moment out of this period. Will it be around self-driving cars? Will it be a Theranos model that actually is not a scam? Will it be something around gene-editing? Will it be something we don’t even see coming yet?

That’s actually interesting to consider — we know the negative repercussions of the pandemic, economically and socially, may last for a long bit. But what if something truly amazing and stupendous and society-altering can emerge from this?

This is not about “hustle porn” and “finding your opportunity.” It’s about the idea that real product-driven or idea-driven change might come from this. I think most of what happens in “The New Normal” will be a return to status quo — people trudging into offices, the housing market booming, etc. — but I’m curious to see if we get a Year of Wonders on the back-end here.

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