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During quarantine from another great biological threat – the Great Plague of London – in the mid-1600s, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had time to think about the actions and reactions of physical objects. As a result, he published ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ in 1687, widely regarded as the most influential book on physics. The laws of motion he proposed recognized the connection between movement and forces, internal and external, exerted on whatever object is moving.

 

Newton recognized that without the application of force, everything continues to move in the same direction and speed. His first law addresses the concept of inertia or resistance to change. In our physical world, many forces exist that alter the trajectory of not only objects around us, but what we humans do as well. For instance, watching a television show in the living room might attract your interest, but when dinner is served, your attention and direction may change toward the dining room. When opening a door, your action causes a mechanical reaction. Although Newton was thinking in mathematical terms, he was addressing a universal action/reaction response.

 

Examples of this behavior can be seen during the current coronavirus epidemic as some react by trying to resist external forces mandating behavioral change while others demonstrate a myriad of different responses, more in harmony with the general consensus and health concerns. In all cases, reactions either lead to a harmonious shift of direction and procedures or invoke a chaotic environment. Attitudes contrary to the common good are actually inertial since they presuppose that a previous personal path of action is independent of other forces around them whether selfish use of closed playground facilities without adequate protection for their children or themselves (“I’m not hurting anyone” and “There is nothing wrong with what I do”), operation of “closed” businesses or using sparsely-used roads as racetracks.

 

It is up to each one of us whether we expect inertia to propel us in the same direction pre-COVID-19 or if we change direction and attitudes. When Newton was metaphorically hit on the head by an apple falling from the apple tree, he considered why the apple fell down rather than up. His response was to ponder the world around him and respond to its signals. Understanding of the world around us, in reply, changed. This COVID-19 pandemic has turned on flashing, neon lights and blared accompanying trumpets. True to Newton’s laws of motion, we are all responding, but how and in what direction is the question. Will we settle into a pattern of inertia, relying on old habits and customs or use the energy of change to develop new and more beneficial systems to confront existing challenges such as traffic, overcrowding, pollution, climate change and education?

 

The apple has fallen from the tree.