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What’s the real story with Newton and the apple? See for yourself

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


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Newton's memoirsAmong the countless achievements of Isaac Newton, any number of which would have made him a houseold name on their own, his articulation of the force of gravity in the late 17th century surely ranks near the top. The legend of Newton’s inspiration coming from a falling apple is often dismissed as apocryphal, but the great physicist’s memoirs would seem to indicate otherwise.

A biography written by William Stukeley, one of Newton’s contemporaries, relates the apple story as Newton himself told it to Stukeley. The text of Stukeley’s Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life has long been available online, but the Royal Society opened up digital access to the handwritten manuscript itself Sunday.

"After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea [sic], under the shade of some apple trees," Stukeley wrote. "[H]e told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…"

Stukeley’s work was not published until 1752, a quarter-century after Newton died at the age of 84, so it’s possible that his recollection of Newton’s tale veers somewhat from the truth. But the legend also appears in other accounts of the time, so if the apple-tree story is a tall tale, it’s one nearly as old as Newton’s theory itself.

Title page of Stukeley’s 1752 manuscript: The Royal Society

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  1. 1. Philtron 11:21 am 01/18/2010

    And this matters… why?

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  2. 2. Rhettfairy 11:27 am 01/18/2010

    Interesting historical perspective. In other words: why not?

    Link to this
  3. 3. rlb2 4:52 pm 01/18/2010

    That’s funny because that is similar to how I discovered the wheel. I was sitting under an overpass trying to start my car and a wheel came crashing down from above and almost hit my car, caused no doubt by gravity…

    It makes you wonder about the simple things in science when for thousands of years before Newton people sitting under apple trees never had a clue of why an apple fell down….

    Link to this
  4. 4. Philtron 6:50 pm 01/18/2010

    Newton only described gravity and observed it’s acceleration, but that doesn’t mean we know why apples fall down. Gravity doesn’t fit into quantum physics very well, remember… because we don’t understand it.

    Rhett: I agree, but this article doesn’t really present anything. It’s just telling us about an old source for a story that we’ve already heard which apparently has had a bit of doubt thrown it’s way… the title is completely misleading. This article is about the Royal Society opening up digital access. Which is fine news, let’s see a Tweet or FB update on it. Doesn’t need an article. Waste of 1s and 0s if you ask me… lol.

    Link to this
  5. 5. ktulu 9:30 am 01/19/2010

    Lol, talk about praying for an argument, perhaps it would have been more interesting if the memoirs revealed he was inspired by the philosopher stone falling from the alchemy table.

    Link to this
  6. 6. DRHX 4:10 pm 01/19/2010

    I enjoyed this article, because I have often heard that the story was probably apocryphal, like so many others that people seem determined to discredit. The burden of proof should be on the naysayers. Do they have proof that the story is not true? If not, the historical account should be given some weight, especially when it is credible and a perfect example of how scientific inspiration often works.

    Link to this
  7. 7. svb 6:18 pm 01/19/2010

    I have often been puzzled why so many people experience things like gravity but do not wonder at it and think of the global consequences of it. How many people looked at the spectra cast by cut glass chandeliers but did not describe the construction of white light. How many people looked at an algebraic curve and did not work out how to take the slope of that line. Describing the obvious is not obvious.

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  8. 8. davidmilne 10:11 pm 01/19/2010

    "This matters why?" Well if you do not know I cannot really tell you.

    But I would like to suggest that it is more important [in an absolute sense] than all the Hollywood fluff that you will find on the MSN page, for example.

    Link to this
  9. 9. eddierleram 11:18 pm 01/19/2010

    Well actually, apples do not fall down. What occurs is cosmologists of yesteryear lost control of some dark energy, which event forced the apple to flee from the slight amount of mysterious force overhead above the clouds. As the ground was there, then the apple stopped its flight with a plopping noise. Newton realized that as he could not rise against the force pushing down on him, then he could not merely sit there, so he began to think. That’s where man always goes wrong: just ask any woman! Eddie R.

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  10. 10. roy943 11:22 pm 01/19/2010

    It would have been interesting if Newton, Einstein, Plank , Heisenberg and Bohr had been contemporaries and could have communicated directly as a group of scientists. Who knows what our knowledge and theories today on quantum physics and nuclear physics would really be? These men were truly great thinkers and all made important contributions to the knowledge of modern physics.

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  11. 11. Jan Jitso 7:04 am 01/20/2010

    Newton described what happens when gravity is active, but he did not know a qualitative explanation. Neither could Einstein offer this and one may wonder how empty space gets information for curving. Vasily Yanchilin gives a qualitative explanation in his book The Quantum Theory of Gravitation (2003). Sadly this Russian scientist is boycotted by Wikipedia like in the dark Middle Ages unwelcome books were burned.
    Einstein accepted constancy of the speed of light only as a temporary hypothesis, a hundred years ago before quantum mechanics appeared on the scene. He knew that such a phenomen could not be independent from all other things in the universe. His general theory of relativity is wrong as can be noticed from the fact that only one time red shift is measured in light emitted from the sun. Not the sum caused by photons retarded by the sun’s gravity and slowing of time near the sun’s mass.
    Yanchilin describes gravity as a pure quantummechanic process: Imagine p.e. the electron as innumerous times appearing and disappearing in a sphere with limits of the Heisenberg uncertainty. In order to preserve the word electron for the whole system I call for convenience those appearances iets. The new theory says that near a mass time runs faster, so in the half of the electron closest to an external mass more iets will appear than in the other half. Inside the electron equilibrium is maintained and the electron moves towards that mass.
    A more pleasant explanation goes as follows: Near mass the uncertainty decreases. So in the half of the electron nearest to an external mass less transitions to the more distant half occur than the other way. The result is moving of the whole towards that external mass.
    I would like that Scientific American interviews Vasily Yanchilin to explain his new theory, which is presented excellently in his book, and to tell what new research since 2003 has become available.
    In recent years it was discovered that the photons from the farthest component of a double star arrive on Earth with some retardation. Most astronomers think that this confirms the old general theory of relativity. However light seeks the easiest path, a well known fact. Therefore the photons have to pass the nearest star with some curve, for near its mass distances become smaller and so more steps/wavelengths would be needed to pass there. In own time of the photons the route with the curve is shortest, but to an external observer it is longer and more time is needed to bridge the distance.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Jan Jitso 7:09 am 01/20/2010

    Newton described what happens when gravity is active, but he did not know a qualitative explanation. Neither could Einstein offer this and one may wonder how empty space gets information for curving. Vasily Yanchilin gives a qualitative explanation in his book The Quantum Theory of Gravitation (2003). Sadly this Russian scientist is boycotted by Wikipedia like in the dark Middle Ages unwelcome books were burned.
    Einstein accepted constancy of the speed of light only as a temporary hypothesis, a hundred years ago before quantum mechanics appeared on the scene. He knew that such a phenomen could not be independent from all other things in the universe. His general theory of relativity is wrong as can be noticed from the fact that only one time red shift is measured in light emitted from the sun. Not the sum caused by photons retarded by the sun’s gravity and slowing of time near the sun’s mass.
    Yanchilin describes gravity as a pure quantummechanic process: Imagine p.e. the electron as innumerous times appearing and disappearing in a sphere with limits of the Heisenberg uncertainty. In order to preserve the word electron for the whole system I call for convenience those appearances iets. The new theory says that near a mass time runs faster, so in the half of the electron closest to an external mass more iets will appear than in the other half. Inside the electron equilibrium is maintained and the electron moves towards that mass.
    A more pleasant explanation goes as follows: Near mass the uncertainty decreases. So in the half of the electron nearest to an external mass less transitions to the more distant half occur than the other way. The result is moving of the whole towards that external mass.
    I would like that Scientific American interviews Vasily Yanchilin to explain his new theory, which is presented excellently in his book, and to tell what new research since 2003 has become available.
    In recent years it was discovered that the photons from the farthest component of a double star arrive on Earth with some retardation. Most astronomers think that this confirms the old general theory of relativity. However light seeks the easiest path, a well known fact. Therefore the photons have to pass the nearest star with some curve, for near its mass distances become smaller and so more steps/wavelengths would be needed to pass there. In own time of the photons the route with the curve is shortest, but to an external observer it is longer and more time is needed to bridge the distance.
    (Wrong button? Double text? Please correct)

    Link to this
  13. 13. bertwindon 8:35 am 01/20/2010

    I would just like to point-out that 17** dates are in the 18th – not 17th century !!

    Link to this
  14. 14. bertwindon 8:39 am 01/20/2010

    … And so, as the text correctly states, Eissac Newton lived in the 17th C. Stukeley wrote in the 18th. (I must not jump to conclusions, and must know my history better – 100 times ? – oh no !)

    Link to this
  15. 15. bertwindon 8:43 am 01/20/2010

    There is no such thing as "modern physics". Physics is – by definition – unchanging with time. It is only our understanding which changes.

    Link to this

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