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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: ClipArtLord.com

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.”

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

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