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Newton's Apple Story Goes Online 114

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the ouch-an-idea dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Although many historians are skeptical of the story, Rev. William Stukeley, a physician, cleric, and prominent antiquarian, wrote that he was once enjoying afternoon tea with Sir Isaac Newton amid the Woolsthorpe apple trees when the mathematician reminisced that he was just in the same situation as when the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. The original version of the story of Sir Isaac Newton and the falling apple first appeared in Stukeley's 1752 biography, Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life. Now BBC reports that UK's Royal Society has converted the fragile manuscript into an electronic book, which anybody with internet access will now be able to read and decide for themselves. 'The story of Newton and the apple, which had gradually become debunked over the years. It is now clear, it is based on a conversation between Newton and Stukeley,' says Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at Oxford University's Trinity College. 'We needn't believe that the apple hit his head, but sitting in the orchard and seeing the apple fall triggered that work. It was a chance event that got him engaged with something he might have otherwise have shelved.'"
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Newton's Apple Story Goes Online

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  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday January 18, 2010 @05:22PM (#30812752)

    A lot of times, the truth isn't relevant. We have made many heroes in society, and we didn't do it for them: We did it for ourselves. A lot of people we call heroes don't deserve it. Many of them didn't do anything at all. For example, United Airlines Flight 93: We have o objective proof of any kind that the passengers staged any kind of revolt, save a vague phone call. But we deified them into heroes after the tragedy as a symbol of hope. It doesn't matter whether the story is true or not. We needed something to symbolize strength and found it there.

    It doesn't matter if the Apple hit Newton on the head or not. What matters is that it is a colorful story that explains the spirit of scientific discovery. It's the same with Einstein -- how many different ways has popular culture misattributed his discovery of the theory of relativity, or attributed a quote to Einstein that was really by somebody else (or made up). The story of Einstein endures as much because of his scientific achievement as because of popular culture stories that give people hope. Specifically, the hope that if they are smart and study hard, they can achieve great things. Today's sociological research rejects the contention that intelligence has any real bearing on success -- success is a combination of factors, of which intelligence can sometimes help a person.

    We use stories and heroes in scientific literature the same as in any other: To convey our values. As far as I'm concerned, the Apple hit Newton on the head--even if it didn't.

  • not news (Score:3, Interesting)

    by trb (8509) on Monday January 18, 2010 @05:25PM (#30812786)
    If you web search for the text, you will find it quoted in various web pages and books (not all recent).

    for example, search for this text:

    "amidst other discourse he told me he was just in the same situation"

  • back to Eden (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 18, 2010 @06:05PM (#30813268)

    regardless of the story's veracity as fact, it is symbolically sound:

    The fruit from the tree of knowledge, under the power of gravity, fell and struck Newton in the centre of his intellect.

  • by mdwh2 (535323) on Monday January 18, 2010 @07:19PM (#30814116) Journal

    I can understand "It doesn't really matter if an apple hit him on the head or not, so let's stop trying to decide if it really happened".

    But I'm not so sure about "It doesn't really matter if an apple hit him on the head or not, so let's claim it to be true". The argument about stories sounds worryingly close to the "They're just stories, honest" arguments made when religious people make claims about things being true, when we have no evidence for them.

    Specifically, the hope that if they are smart and study hard, they can achieve great things. Today's sociological research rejects the contention that intelligence has any real bearing on success -- success is a combination of factors, of which intelligence can sometimes help a person.

    So surely this is an example of where the truth does matter, and where it may be an issue for people to believe that "if they are smart and study hard, they can achieve great things" when actually that isn't true?

    The thing that annoys me about the apple story is that it creates the impression that it's ideas that are important - it wasn't the insight, intellect and hard work in developing calculus and formulating a theory of gravity that mattered, rather that it all came in an instant with a single idea. It's this thought process that leads people to thinking that any idea they have is important - as opposed to what you do with it. It also leads to claims that ideas should be protected, for example, through copyright or patent law.

  • by Macblaster (94623) on Monday January 18, 2010 @07:37PM (#30814290) Homepage

    There is a more important mystery here than whether Newton actually saw an apple fall. Please see this illustration in Stukeley's memoir [onlineculture.co.uk].

    The caption explains what I am seeing: "Newton’s face is shown in profile, in the style of a medallion and supported by a multi-breasted female figure."

    The caption does not explain why I am seeing it.

  • Re:This is why ... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by radtea (464814) on Monday January 18, 2010 @08:13PM (#30814564)

    It would have been a coconut and he would have been killed when it hit his head. No theory of gravity.

    Although it is true that falling coconuts kill more people every year than sharks, it is not clear why you think Newton was hit on the head by an apple.

    The text makes it obvious he was seeing an apple fall (probably more than one if he really sat in an orchard for any length of time. It's fairly rare that we have an opportunity to observe a freely falling object from a distance, and orchards are excellent places for such observation.

    Newton's reflections as reported by Stukeley are just what one would expect of genius, as well: he asks himself why something that is commonplace and taken for granted happens the way it does, rather than just assuming "well of course that's the way it happens... how else could it be?" He imagines the apply falling sideways, or upwards, and realizes that it's fall is always perpendicular to the surface of the Earth, which is to say toward the centre, rather than toward any other part of it.

    I guess if non-scientists historians were reading this over the last 300 years they might have "debunked" it based on their ignorance of the way scientists think, but it seems quite plausible to me, and the sort of thing a mere biographer at the outset of the scientific revolution would be unlikely to be able to invent so plausibly.

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite. -- Bertrand Russell, "Skeptical Essays", 1928

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