Discover more from The Internet Is Vast
Year of Miracles - 81023
“The undistinguish’d Seeds of Good and Ill, / Heaven, in his bosom, from our knowledge hides; / And draws them in contempt of human skill, / Which oft, for friends, mistaken foes provides.”
*Editors note* Today’s post is from friend of the newsletter, Jean-Luc Currie. I could go on at length as to why you should subscribe to his newsletter The Portmanteau, or just know him as a friend, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself. Enjoy!
If you thought you could make it through today without reading 1600s English poetry written in decasyllabic quatrain, then you were wrong.
The Daily Rabbit Hole: Does the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ also mean ‘opportunity’?
“The American public intellectual Lewis Mumford contributed to the spread of this idea in 1944 when he wrote: "The Chinese symbol for crisis is composed of two elements: one signifies danger and the other opportunity."
It’s neither that accurate, nor that simple
“This was the worst outbreak of plague in England since the black death of 1348.”
The Great Plague of 1665-1666 is estimated to have killed 15% of London’s population. Other cities stopped trading with London. Scotland closed its border with England. The rich and wealthy who could flee left for the countryside (remind you of something?) while the poorer classes stayed, endured, and died. The “plague” was actually a mixture of several different strains, the most prominent being Bubonic Plague, a disease transmitted by black rat fleas carrying the Yersinia pestis bacteria.
Just a little bit north of London, in the small university town of Cambridge, a young boy named John Morley was found dead. Cause of death? Bubonic plague. Cambridge immediately shut down, and a young scholar retreated to his family home of Woolsthorpe Manor.
While at Woolsthorpe, the young man had uninterrupted time to continue working on several of his scientific and mathematical theories. He created new insights in what became calculus, the mathematics of change, and analytical geometry. Then he used these mathematical discoveries to create new physics by analyzing motion through space and time. He also began shaping the idea of universal gravitation–yes, after watching an apple fall from a tree.
The ‘Wait, What?’ Vortex: In what might be my favorite bit of historo-scientific esoterica.
“He also stuck a needle in his own eye as part of his quest to understand how light and lenses work.”
Why did Isaac Newton’s effort to understand light involve self-mutilation?
Ode to a British Poet…
In 1816, at the age of 19, John Keats finished medical training and received a license as an apothecary. He then told his guardian he was abandoning a medical career in pursuit of poetry. Things spiraled from there. His first collection of poems in 1816, imaginatively titled Poems, was a critical failure. He began nursing his tubercular brother Tom in 1817, from whom he caught tuberculosis. Then in December 1818 Tom died, and Keats moved to Wentworth Place where he was heavily in debt and forced to borrow money from several friends.
But in the year 1819, Keats experienced his annus mirabilis, writing most of the poems for which he is best known, including “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Hyperion”.
The Local Optimum…isn’t.
In February 2014, a two-day strike from trade unions running London’s Underground caused a disruption to over half of the subway stations. As a result, thousands of Londoners had their commutes seriously disrupted and they were forced to find a new route. Analyzing data from fare cards after the strike, the economists Larkam, Rauch, and Willems found that a significant portion of commuters did not return to their pre-strike routes, likely due to the fact that the commuters found a more optimal route.
Since we’re such creatures of habit, would these commuters have done something new if they hadn’t been forced into it?
The opening poem lines at the top of this page are from John Dryden’s 1667 “annus mirabilis”. One would think a poem title that translates to “Year of Wonder” or “Year of Miracles” might talk about a year of plenty, or at least good things. But the year in question includes a war with the Dutch, the Black Plague of 1665-1666, and the Great Fire of London in September 1666.
Hardly sounds like a year of wonder.
But, those same tragedies birthed some incredible findings. The Plague forced Isaac Newton to Woolsthorpe Manor where he had uninterrupted time to pursue his theories. The Great Fire of London gave rise to the iconic London we all see today because it banned wooden buildings and mandated brick and stone construction. Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt in the aftermath. Additionally, it led to the use of ichnography in city planning.
The point is that tragedy and difficulty, obstacles and challenges, are one of life’s ways of shaking us from our habits. When we come out the other side we often find something good or discover something new, sometimes as mundane as a more efficient commute, but other times a science-altering paradigm for viewing the physical world.
Going through a tough time? Who knows…your annus mirabilis may just be around the corner.
Thanks for reading The Internet Is Vast! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.