It is one of the most famous anecdotes in the history of science. The young Sir Isaac Newton is sitting in his garden when an apple falls on his head and, in that moment 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. The story is almost certainly embellished, both by Newton and the generations of storytellers who came after him. But thanks to modern day technology, anyone with access to the internet can see for themselves the first-hand account of how a falling apple inspired the understanding of gravitational force.
Like all the best myths from history, the apple-falling tale seems to have at least a little grounding in reality. Squirreled away in the archives of London’s Royal Society was a manuscript containing the truth about the apple. This manuscript eventually became a biography of Sir Isaac Newton entitled Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life written by William Stukeley, an archaeologist and one of Newton’s first biographers. 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 thea, 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 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…”
You can read the full manuscript here at the Newton Project, which is a non-profit group dedicated to making his unpublished and published works freely available online. While the manuscript is far from being a NY Times Best Seller, it does offer some pretty incredible insight into the development of 23-year oldNewton’s theories on motion & gravitational forces. Later in life,Newton would go on to make history by presenting his three laws of motion in a book. Today, we continue to use these laws to explain the motion of everything from apples to rockets.
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. Meanwhile, three and a half centuries and an Albert Einstein later, physicists still don’t fully understand gravity. Looks like we’re gonna need a bigger apple!
Learn More about the Incredible Sir Isaac Newton with these great resources!
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