Most of us have heard the story about Sir Isaac Newton, the legendary discoverer of gravity, who first formulated his laws after being hit on the head by a falling apple, and wondering exactly why it was that objects fall. But I’ve never been quite certain whether this apple-falling-on-the-head business is exactly what happened, or whether it is just a nice yarn which became accepted over the course of time.
An image of Newton’s apple tree in Grantham from Stukeley’s memoir.
Experts from the Royal Society think the first man to record this ripping tale was William Stukeley in his 1752 biography of Sir Isaac. Stukeley was a close friend of Newton’s and something of a scientist himself; he did things like pioneer the excavation of stonehenge, which (among other things) led some to credit him as the founder of archaeology as we know it today. His biography was written at a time when Newton was a relatively famous man (his masterwork, the principia had been in circulation for about 50 years by the mid 1750s). Much as the public want to know the sordid details of stars like Tiger Wood’s life today, the proletarians of the 1700s clearly thirsted for gossip on their scientific heros; what an age it must have been!
As part of the celebrations marking their 350th year in existence, the Royal Society has now made some of the most interesting manuscripts from it’s collection available online, including this biography. The manuscripts are pretty life-like; almost exact copies – not typed out reproductions – which thus show us interesting details, like what the handwriting of the authors looked like. Glancing through the volume now, for example, I can just about discern from Stukeley’s scrawl on page 4, that the book was first penned 27 years before it was published. Stukeley graciously, and out of respect for his friend, waited until after Newton’s death in 1727 to put the words into the public domain.
Apparently science scholars have long known that Newton told the story about the apple hitting his head himself, many times. Keith Moore, the Royal Society’s head of libraries and archives, says it was an ‘attempt to humanize him[self]’ to the public. It seems likely that as a friend, Stukeley would have wanted to help Sir Isaac popularise his story and make him sound likeable, especially when writing his book with a general audience in mind. The memoir has several endearing stories about Sir Isaac; about his forgetfulness and such like. One of them cites him walking up a hill with a scholarly volume in one hand, and leading a donkey with the other. When he got to the top of the hill he realised the donkey had bolted on him halfway up, but so engrossed in the book was he, that he hadn’t noticed. Another describes him building a scale model of a windmill as a child, and when it’s sails were too small to catch enough wind, he caught mice to run-power it’s cogs and wheels instead.
So it seems like the apple story and, to some degree, the whole of Stukeley’s memoir, were geared up to engage the audience with the science and make the scientist seem less like an alien. Just as modern science communicators try to use analogies to make complex theories understandable and exciting, Newton wanted to make his ideas accessible.
So is the story true? Well, since Newton and Stukeley were, allegedly, the only ones present when the apple fell, the question becomes ‘are they lying?’ We will probably never know the truth. But if they embellished the tale simply to outline why a fantastic discovery was relevant, then surely we should have no reason to scorn them.
I’ve blogged a little bit about the Royal Society before, but really the man to go to if you want to know more about it is literary hero Bill Bryson. Check out his brilliant essay on the subject here.