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We’ve all have heard this tale, over and over again. A young, wise and learned Isaac Newton is sitting beneath his favorite apple tree contemplating the mysterious universe. Suddenly – boink! -an apple hits him on the head. “Aha!” he shouts, or perhaps, “Eureka!” In a flash he understands that the very same force that brought the apple crashing toward the ground also keeps the moon falling toward the Earth and the Earth falling toward the sun: gravity.
But to some of us who have researched further the tale is incomplete. The reference was to the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge — a fruit perhaps not as evil as superstition might imply. In religion, mythology and folktales is that the word “apple” was used as a generic term for all (foreign) fruit, other than berries, but including nuts, as late as the 17th century. Notwithstanding, it was the apple as we see today; three and a half centuries and an Albert Einstein later, physicists still don’t really understand gravity. Looks we need a bigger apple. But let us not rush; we need to examine multifarious problems that Newton had to face before he eventually gravitated.
The Greek goddess of discord, Eris, became disgruntled after she was excluded from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In retaliation, she tossed a golden apple inscribed ? (Kalliste, sometimes transliterated Kallisti, ‘For the most beautiful one’), into the wedding party. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris of Troy was appointed to select the recipient. After being bribed by both Hera and Athena, Aphrodite tempted him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. He awarded the apple to Aphrodite, thus indirectly causing the Trojan War. The wise Newton kept the apple with him although his charmer from Athens was adamant to have it, thus avoiding another war, this one between Athens and London.
Instead he chose to throw it at someone much closer to his heart, in keeping with his desire and Plato; “I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love me, take it and share your girlhood with me; but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not, even then take it, and consider how short-lived is beauty.” But the moment the apple of his eyes ate a mouthful of the biblical ‘forbidden fruit” the larynx in Newton’s throat’ swelled reminding him of the punishment meted out by God to Adam when his throat was given the Adam’s apple because Eve ate the forbidden fruit and since then it has been sticking in the throat of Adam’s progenies.
But then Newton was relentless, he persevered and finally propounded the gravitational theory, not withstanding the “forbidden fruit”. Today he and his works are a source of inspiration to all those love and understand the intricacies of the universe. I am writing this article on an Apple handheld Computer, whose original logo had a rendering of Isaac Newton sitting beneath an Apple tree, it shows Isaac Newton under an apple tree, with a highlighted apple about to fall and hit his head:
In MIT is planted an apple tree that is a direct descendant of the tree under which Isaac Newton sat when he is said to have conceived the theory of gravity.” I couldn’t think of a better place than MIT to put a tree that illustrates a law of physics,” says Vetter, whose tree stands in MIT’s President’s Garden, a sunny spot off the Infinite Corridor. This fall, the beloved tree bore bright, healthy fruit–a sure sign of flourishing and a link between past and present days. The MIT apple tree was grown from a cutting of a tree in England’s Royal Botanical Gardens that was grown from a cutting of Newton’s apple tree. Vetter was given the plant as a gift from the National Bureau of Standards when he left office as undersecretary of the U.S. Commerce Department in 1977. He presented the young plant to MIT that same year.
But then a tale is a tale! The apocryphal story is one of the most famous in the history of science and now you can see for yourself what Newton actually said. Squirreled away in the archives of London’s Royal Society is a manuscript containing the truth about the Apple. It is the manuscript for what would become a biography of Newton entitled Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written by William Stukeley, an archaeologist and one of Newton’s first biographers, and published in 1752. Newton told the apple story to Stukeley, who relayed it as such:
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees…he told me, 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. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”
So it turns out the apple story is true – for the most part. The apple may not have hit Newton in the head, but I’ll still picture it that way.