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Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story

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Search online for any list of history’s greatest scientists and you’ll find the same names: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, and so on. The order may change, but the name on top will almost invariably be that of Isaac Newton.

We can argue over such lists – they’re mostly harmless fun – but we can agree that Newton earned his place there. He quantified the laws of motion that govern our lives, and almost 350 years after he did his work, it is still useful.

Isaac Newton / Credit:

But why is Newton better remembered than, say, Ernest Rutherford, who determined the structure of the atom, or Gregor Mendel, who brought us modern genetics? The difference, probably, is that Newton had a great story to tell.

It’s the one about the apple. You remember it – how the young Newton, sent home from school at Cambridge to avoid the plague of 1665, was sitting under a tree one day, saw an apple fall to the ground, and, in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity.

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

But that apple! Oh, to have been a chronicler of science back then, having the chance to tell this wonderful story about the magnetic young physicist from Lincolnshire.

Actually, there was such a person. His name was William Stukeley, and in 1752 he published one of the first biographies of Newton, “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.”  Newton, as an old man, had told him the tale:

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank thea under the shade of some apple trees, only he, and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood…..”

The Royal Society has called the apple story “the most famous anecdote of discovery in science.”  Students of physics may stumble over the math behind Newton’s laws of motion, but they’ll remember the apple.

Newton's apple / Credit: LadyofHats via Wikimedia Commons

There are other stories in science, of course. You’ll probably recall Archimedes running naked from the bath shouting, “Eureka!” or Oppenheimer watching the first atomic bomb and thinking, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Einstein is remembered (wrongly) as the elementary-school failure who came to epitomize genius. But Newton somehow won the good-story sweepstakes.  His is simple, gives us a visual image of his work, and helps explain something from our daily lives.

Over the years, inevitably, the details have been embellished. Ask around today, and people may tell you that the apple bonked Newton on the head. But the point remains: if you have an important point to make, especially in science but also in other fields, there’s nothing like a good story to make it memorable.

Of course, Newton may have known that. Historians say he was both a natural philosopher and a natural self-promoter. A friend of mine, knowing I was writing about the apple, said, “For all we know, Newton may have embellished the story himself.”

Ned Potter About the Author: Ned Potter, a Senior Vice President at the international communications firm RLM Finsbury, is a former science correspondent for ABC News and CBS News.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. Nick Danger 4:20 pm 02/20/2014

    “and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.”

    Newton did not “try his hand” at these things “in his later years”! He was involved in both from his youth onward, and both occupied more of his time than did physics and mathematics.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 2:24 pm 02/21/2014

    “in a flash of insight, came to understand the workings of gravity.”

    Completely untrue! The insight was a deliberate contemplation of a possibility that the same force that acted on the apple might also explain why the moon remains in orbit with the earth. The mathematical understanding came after many years of work.

    “In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope”

    Not in his spare time…deliberate effort! Not the first, just the first working reflecting telescope.

    “in his later years … tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.”

    So you suggest he did this work as an old man getting on in years and losing his grip on reason? Complete BS!

    “Students of physics may stumble over the math behind Newton’s laws of motion, but they’ll remember the apple.”

    Yes but, even more than 35 years ago, my professor also said the story many not even be true!

    Your article is just one of many that perpetuates myths and does nothing to educate the interested reader on what the actual scientific process of even a remarkable genius like Newton entailed.

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  3. 3. NedPotter 11:52 am 02/22/2014

    My dear Messrs. Danger and Tucker:

    I am in receipt of your responses to Mr. Potter’s writing on my work & the power of the mythology that surrounds it, & I do fear that you have become most exercised over what I took to be a lighthearted essay about my legacy.

    It is true that I was, for many years of my life, interested in matters of the spirit and the alchemic arts, & I should hope other Natural Philosophers will exhibit a similar curiosity, much as a child plays on a sea-shore. I did not, however, leave published works about these subjects until many years after the Principia or Opticks. Indeed, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended was not printed until 1728, after my — well, shall we say, my move to Westminster Abbey?

    It is also true that sudden insights are rare in the sciences, as demonstrated by the time I laboured over the laws of motion. However, if a simple story, to wit, one about an apple, should excite young minds, then I, for one, take a lasting delight.

    I remain your most humble and amused servant,

    Isaac Newton, M.P., P.R.S.
    Kensington, Middlesex

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