Ornithologist Robert Stroud, author of "Diseases of Canaries," and other important contributions to the health of birds, began his work while in isolation near the end of the influenza pandemic of 1919. Having little to occupy his mind, he came upon a damaged nest with three injured sparrows. He developed a close study of small birds, eventually husbanded a collection of approximately 300 canaries, and developed a cure for a family of avian diseases.
Stroud, however, wasn't in isolation because of the pandemic. He was considered a dangerous psychopath and was in solitary confinement in Leavenworth after having murdered a couple of associates, one of whom was a prison guard. He spent 54 years in prison, most of that in solitary confinement because he stabbed or otherwise assaulted a few others, including inmates and prison staff.
While having been regarded by nearly all who encountered him as a nasty piece of work, he gets some of my compassion. He ran away from home at thirteen to escape child abuse. And, beyond my comprehension, and also beyond the comprehension of those who knew him, this twisted, damaged, wreck of a human being applied formidable attention to the well being of small birds, and that attention left a broad and enduring contribution. Oh yeah, and he did it alone: in solitary confinement with no hope of relief; without friends; and largely opposed by the people who controlled his life.
I don't exactly want to say, my hero, but what if even a small sample of those of us among the unfettered, had that drive.
Maybe there's a clue in another story.
Three hundred years earlier another solitary and vindictive individual, himself having had a hand in perhaps thirty brutal killings, produced a set of broad and durable contributions to human knowledge during a period of isolation, this time from the bubonic plague.
Polymath Isaac Newton had two gap years from Uni in Cambridge spent in the English countryside during the years 1665 to 1667. From an unprepossessing farm, he experimented and developed his foundational theories on optics, contributions to physics that developed what we now call Newton's Laws of Motion and the theory of gravitation. Oh yeah, and he developed the calculus.
Thomas Levenson, writing in the New Yorker, presents a contrarian view. He correctly observes Newton was sui generis, And Newton was Newton before and after solitude. In Levenson's view, solitude didn't make nor sustain Newton's genius. (Probably not his misanthropy and homicidal tendencies either.)
And what about solitary, misanthropic, and homicidal Stroud. Shall we move along? Nothing to see here?
Back to Levenson and Newton.
Newton was able to do what he did not because of where he happened to find himself during the plague but because of who he was—one of the handful of greatest mathematicians and natural philosophers of all time, who, for several years, was able to do almost nothing else with his time but think, reason, and calculate.
Against that history, telling yourself as you shelter in place that now is the time to emulate Newton’s ambition is not so helpful.
But why not helpful? Levenson just linked Stroud and Newton in the most important way. Both were able to do almost nothing else with their time but think, reason, and calculate. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us he used his point on a yet unbroken line of wrongly imprisoned black men to ". . . write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers . . ."
Levenson is right, I'm no Isaac Newton, much less a Dr. King. I may not be worthy even to compare myself to Robert Stroud.
But what if even a small sample of those of us among the unfettered engaged that drive. What might emerge?
And in what better time than this Thanksgiving weekend to step away from the crowds, to write long letters, to think long thoughts, and to pray long prayers?
With thanks, Francis Sopper