We’ve all heard the story. An apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head. The gears in his head turned. He wondered why that apple came down perpendicularly to the ground instead of falling or flying to all the other available directions. Then he did some math.
Many prolific essays and biographies romanticized the apple. The apple became the butt of many jokes. The apple got the spotlight shone on its shiny, ruby façade. I am going to be that annoying lady who tells you that the core of that apple is hyperbole.
Let me break it down for you.
Sir Isaac Newton, in his own words, talked about an apple falling on the ground.
Pomo is Apple in Latin. Robert Greene got this story from Martin Folkes, who served under Newton as the vice-president of the Royal Society and after Newton’s demise headed the Society himself. So, there definitely was an apple.
The details showed up in William Stukeley’s accounts of a dinner he had with Newton in his Kensington home.
We now know that the falling apple, which definitely exists, made the genius think. Thinking is often the first step for discoveries and inventions.
All hail the falling apple?
Our illusive apple also appeared in Voltaire’s essays titled, ‘Essay on the Civil Wars of France (1727)’ and ‘Letters on the English (1733).’
To quote the essay,
“Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens, had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.”
The apple, however, never fell on Newton’s head.
The man that made the apple fall on Newton’s head was Isaac D’Israeli. He altered the story of the Newtonian apple. The original story had Newton wondering about apples falling off a tree. D’Israeli changed the story. The apple never hit Newton on the head. He just observed the falling apples. The rest, as they say, is history.
Why did this gravity apple defy all the other notions of gravity before it?
Arabian and European mathematicians/physicists definitely related to Aristotle’s version of gravity. This version stated that heavy bodies moved towards the center of the Earth.
Newton, on the other hand, defined what gravity actually is. If we add another well-renowned apple metaphor, Newton is the only man (Biblical Adam) who could survive the fall (Biblical punishment) with an apple (Biblical thievery from the Garden of Eden.)
Newton’s Law of Universal Gravity also apparently had some apple-based musings associated to it. No wonder so many Universities boast of housing the famous Apple Tree. According to the written accounts from John Conduitt, a distant relative of Sir Isaac Newton, the first stages of enlightenment came from that apple tree.
The apple tree saw many apples grow, then fall. According to distinguished mathematical scientist Abraham de Moivre, who was also Newton’s friend, Newton’s garden was the source of inspiration behind many of his projects.
Young Newton apparently got inspired by the principle that made the apple fall perpendicularly. He also pondered over controversial and unproven theories like a single governing factor that accounts for the Moon’s orbit around the Earth.
The most well-renowned theories of Aristotle back then separated the world into:
1. A supra-lunar realm of perfect and heavenly spheres
2. An imperfect but ever-changing sub-lunar world that we live in
As Newton aged, he noted that gravitational force was universal and it always obeyed a mathematical law. Former theories about this ‘modern Cartesian science’ stated that heavenly bodies moved around their orbits via whirlpools or vortices of aether (cosmic fluid.) Newton’s theorization was in violation of these assumptions.
Newton allegedly shifted to mathematics mode. Unlike Descartes’s philosophies, these ideas could be mathematically tested. Newton’s precise idea was credible enough to shift into math-mode! He noted that the calculations about the Moon’s motion in purely gravitational terms didn’t agree with his theory.
Newton then noted that his first Moon gravitational test didn’t go through because he wrongly estimated the radius of the Earth. Newton took Earth’s radius as 5,500 km. This 14% discrepancy caused a 40% shift to the supposed value of the gravitational acceleration at the Earth’s surface.
Sir Isaac Newton was known to be obsessive. When the geodetic measurements of Richard Norwood and Jean Picard came out, he altered the earth’s radius in his calculations as 6,378 km.
Objectively looking at the history of discoveries, the Universal Law of Gravitation was the first major grand unifications theory in astrophysics which also applied to the Earth.
All this began when a home-bound prodigy (due to the Great Plague) looked out of his window at the garden and at the night sky while contemplating many things. One of those musings included the perpendicular fall of apples and the nonexistent fall of the Moon.
There is a 21-year difference between when the apples fell and Newton’s groundbreaking ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ was published. We just romanticized the apple too much; oftentimes undermining the extenuating circumstances of a young, misunderstood genius. The critics were so vicious that Newton considered not publishing Principia at all. If Edmond Halley hadn’t pushed, encouraged, financed and used his diplomatic connections, Newton would have given up.
The original apple tree was allegedly sold. Many new apple trees have since spawned from the original tree. That’s why many universities and manors boast of housing the Newtonian Apple Tree.
This apple tree is an extremely rare Flower of Kent Apple variety. These apples were used more for cooking than eating raw. It was planted in 1650, uprooted by a storm in 1816. It survived. It was re-rooted. Then it spread around the world.
Don’t forget to eat an apple today. You never know, maybe someday, your history will be intricately linked to it.