During the Great Plague of London back in 1666, a freshly graduated Sir Isaac Newton was locked down in the British countryside. At 23 years old, he was bored and curious.
During his time avoiding the plague, he ended up inventing calculus and discovering the spectrum of light.
From one devastating pandemic to another, I think we can all understand how a mind could be driven to such creative madness. As you’ve played your computer games and made video calls with cute bunny ears, or turned yourself into a potato for your daily Zoom catch-up with your manager, you probably didn’t realise you had a pandemic to thank for the maths behind the dynamic images.
We may not be in full lockdown in Indonesia as I write this, but across the country, entertainment and tourist venues are shut down, beaches are closed, villages and whole islands are restricting access. We could be under much more stringent conditions; in Spain, you can get issued with a fine for taking a breather on a park bench. Yet the boredom is real, and the upheaval to our everyday lives is challenging.
Unlike Sir Isaac, we don’t have to resort to creating whole new swathes of mathematics during coronavirus times – we have the technology. From staving off boredom to keeping in touch with loved ones, keeping us employed and keeping us safe, our everyday applications and websites have taken on a whole new meaning.
Once the home of cat videos, source of free music, and harbourer of crazy conspiracy theories, YouTube has become something much more important in our lives. Joe Wicks was just another fitness and lifestyle coach plying his wares on the internet a few short weeks ago. Now, he’s giving a PE class every day on his channel, The Body Coach TV, and each video is amassing millions of hits as families do their daily jerks together.
Theatre companies are offering recordings of their shows on the platform, too. The channel The Show Must Go On is streaming an Andrew Lloyd-Webber classic production for two days every week. For something more highbrow, the Bolshoi ballet and opera house are streaming six of its shows online whilst no one can get to the theatre.
Only a few short years ago, such widespread sharing of exercise, entertainment, and culture would have been thought impossible. YouTube, that is: a global pandemic has been on the cards for a fair few year. You can check out Bill Gate’s eerily accurate predictions of the current situation, on YouTube, in his TED Talk from 2015.
It’s not just helping us to alleviate boredom and keep us out of the fridge for a few minutes longer. Technology has been harnessed by the scientists working to find a cure or a vaccine, too.
It was only 12 days after the first recorded case of coronavirus that Chinese scientists had decoded the genetic material of the virus. It was promptly uploaded online, at a time when only virologists and epidemiologists really understood the devastating potential of this novel coronavirus. That ability to get the data about SARS-NCoV-2 shared quickly meant we got a running start on the disease.
The advent of superfast internet has meant scientists can share their data near-instantaneously, feeding global studies of potential treatments. There are over 300 studies underway internationally into all elements of the coronavirus, from potential medicines to vaccines, to understanding the social impact of isolation. Without the ability to share this information, things would be moving a lot slower.
Another element speeding up humanity’s response to coronavirus is the ability to crunch the numbers. Gone are the days of paper and pencil and having humans doing all the work. Researchers are harnessing the best supercomputers in the world to fight the battle against corona. Combining the powers of 400,000 computers, and counting, Folding@Home is using the spare processing capacity of home computers to run simulations on the virus and try to find existing drugs that could fight it.
Science is very much bringing people together in the direct fight against the disease that seems to have first sprung up in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. But it’s not just the greatest minds on the planet that need the power of others. We, as mere human beings, need to interact with people too.
Unleashing the power of our smartphones, video chatting has taken off. For those who’ve been FaceTiming since Apple made it cool ten years ago, this might not seem like a big change, but Facebook alone has reported a 70 per cent increase in group video calls in the last month. Meanwhile, the previously lesser-known Houseparty application has seen an almost 3,000 per cent increase in downloads during March.
Making connections has been the narrative of technology for the last decade. Yet, there has been an interesting wave of negativity to the next generation of communications technology. A strange meme has spread across the internet, convincing some people that 5G mobile phone masts are responsible for the spread of coronavirus. Although utterly debunked, the theory still exists on Facebook in over thirty countries and masts are even being vandalised in the UK.
Whatever the dark side of technology during the coronavirus epidemic, it’s most definitely keeping the world turning as our social lives come to a grinding halt. People are discovering that they don’t have to go into the office to work – a computer, an internet connection, and a quick download of Zoom or Skype is all a lot of people need to get the job done.
Of course, a lot of personal uses of technology come down to the devices we can buy and the connectivity we can afford. As much as plenty of us are lucky to lay eyes on our loved ones across the globe, there are even more people who don’t have that luxury at the moment. For them, like the rest of us, all technology can do now is whiz through the calculations to find us a cure, and hope there’s no need for a whole new type of math again because the world only gets one Sir Isaac Newton.