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Sir Isaac Newton's Theory of Gravity and the Falling Apple

About the true story behind the myth that a falling apple inspired Sir Isaac Newton's gravitational theory.

GREAT HAPPENINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED

Newton's Gravitational Theory Was Not Inspired by a Falling Apple.

Sir Isaac Newton was taking tea under the apple trees in the family gardens at Woolsthorpe one summer's afternoon in 1665 when an apple fell from an overhanging branch, plunked him on the head, and immediately provided the inspiration for his law of gravitation. Or so the story goes. It may indeed have happened that way, but no one knows for certain. Even the famed British astronomer Sir Harold Spencer Jones, who publicly stated in 1944 that the story was probably true, later recanted, noting that "one cannot be sure either way."

The story of Newton's apple first appears in Voltaire's Elements de la Philosophie de Newton, published in 1738, long after the great English mathematician had died and 73 years from the time the disputed apple fell. Voltaire admired Sir Isaac and his theories tremendously and offered a clear, insightful interpretation of his teachings. But his only source for the apple story was Sir Isaac's niece, Catherine Barton Conduitt, who had married one of her uncle's closest associates. She and her husband lived with and kept house for Newton in his declining years.

Another bit of evidence, one that is taken quite seriously by the story's adherents, is Rev. William Stukely's biography of Newton, written in 1752 though unpublished, mysteriously, until 1936, Stukely, a physician, cleric, and prominent antiquarian, wrote that he was once enjoying afternoon tea with Sir Isaac amid the Woolsthorpe apple trees when the mathematician reminisced that "he was just in the same situation as, when, formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. "Note, however, that Stukely did not claim to have witnessed the apple incident firsthand. Meanwhile, important early biographies of Newton by Pemberton, Whiston, and Colin Maclaurin include no mention of the ancedote at all. And the great German astronomer Karl Friedrich Gauss thought the story too ludicrous for words. "Undoubtedly," he once hypothesized, "the occurrence was something of this sort: There comes to Newton a stupid importunate man, who asks him how he hit upon his great discovery. Newton. . . wanted to get rid of the man [and] told him that an apple fell on his nose; and this made the matter quite clear to the man, and he went away satisfied,"

In all fairness, it should be noted that the Babson Institute in Wellesley, Mass., claims to own a fruit-bearing tree grafted from the one that figured so crucially in Newton's thinking. The institute was founded by Roger W. Babson, the man who made the study of gravity and the quest for an antigravity machine his life's work. Also on display on the Babson campus is Sir Isaac's bed, whose significance should be readily obvious: It was only the force of gravity which allowed Sir Isaac to rest on it.

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