Experiment: Was gravity discovered by an apple hitting Newton on the head?

1666; The Great Plague of London was taking the lives of thousands and fleeing survivors to remote areas. Among these survivors, Isaac Newton He was a young man who, after four years at Cambridge University, was forced to take refuge for a time in the Wolstorp mansion, his mother’s country house, where he contemplated the mystery of the moon orbiting the earth. Until one day, while sitting under the apple tree in the garden of the mansion, enjoying the fresh air and the chirping of birds, an apple fell from the tree and hit his head; And it was at this historic and crucial moment that Newton discovered the law of gravity.

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The story of the Newton apple is one of the most famous and enduring scientific anecdotes in history, and almost all students in the world have read about it in textbooks; But did this story happen the way we remember it? Join Zummit as we explore the story of the apple falling from the tree and its connection to discovering true attraction.

Where did the story of the apple fall begin?

The Great Plague of London plagued many public places and universities, and Newton was forced to leave Cambridge and return to his hometown of Grantham in Lincolnshire. During the days that Newton spent away from college in the Wolstorp mansion, his mind was on the mystery of the moon orbiting the earth until he finally argued that gravity must be effective at great distances.

It is known that Newton worked on mathematical formulas for several years after observing that apples always fell vertically on the ground to show how the force of gravity is inversely related to the square of the distance between two objects; But is there any evidence that Newton was really inspired by the fall of the apple to reach gravity?

We must begin by saying that there is no record of Newton himself describing the fall of the apple; But there is other evidence that Newton spoke to others in his old age about the key role of the apple tree in his great and historic discovery.

To show the relationship between the discovery of gravity and the falling of an apple from a tree, historians usually report William StockleyAn archaeologist and archaeologist cite Newton’s friend and contemporaries, cited in Newton’s biography (1752).

William Stockley's manuscript of the story of Newton's apple fall

A page in Newton’s biography by William Stockley (1752) that tells the story of Newton being inspired by the fall of the apple

Stuckley, like Newton, was born in Lincolnshire and used this common ground to establish a friendly relationship with this grumpy scientist. The two, members of the Royal Society, the world’s first scientific society, met regularly to discuss various issues. One day in 1726, a year before Newton’s death, the two friends met in London for dinner. An excerpt from Newton’s biography by Stuckley, the manuscript of which was first published by the Royal Society in 2010, describes the meeting as follows:

After dinner, as the weather was hot, we went to the garden and drank tea under the shade of the apple tree; Only me and him. In the middle of our conversation, he told me that he was now in the same situation where the concept of gravity had first crossed his mind. As he meditated and the apple fell to the ground, he wondered why the apple should always land perpendicular to the ground. Why should not it fall to the sides or upwards and always land towards the center of the earth? This is certainly because the earth is pulling it towards itself. There must be tensile force in the material. And the sum of this tensile force in the matter of the earth must be in the center of the earth, not in any direction.

So, does this apple fall vertically or towards the center? If matter attracts matter, then it must be in proportion to its quantity. As a result, just as the earth pulls the apple toward it, so does the apple pull the ground toward it.

William Stackley's manuscript of the story of the apple fall and the discovery of Newton's gravity

In this photo from the manuscript of Newton’s biography by Stuckley, taken in January 2010, the Royal Society librarian mentions the words “does this apple fall”.

The Stackley Report is the most detailed and accurate account of the story of the apple and the discovery of gravity, but it is not the only account of the Newton era. In fact, Newton told this story to other people that same year; Including John ConduitThe nephew’s husband and his assistant at the Royal Mint, which Newton spent the last years of his life managing.

Conduit wrote about this story:

In 1666 he returned from Cambridge to his mother in Lincolnshire. While walking in the garden, he thought that the force of gravity (which knocked the apple off the tree) was not limited to a certain distance from the ground, but that this force must be far beyond what was usually thought.

He said to himself, for example, why not within a month? And if so, [گرانش] It must also influence the motion of the moon, and perhaps keep it in rotation, and immediately begin to calculate what effect such a hypothesis could have.

John Conduit's handwriting from the story of the apple fall and the discovery of Newton's gravity

John Conduit’s handwriting, which tells the story of the fall of the apple and Newton’s inspiration to discover gravity

Although Conduit and Stackley’s account of Newton’s apple’s story is better known than the others, it is still the first time this article has been published. وُلتِر, French philosopher and writer, published in 1727, one year after Newton’s death. In this article, Voltaire made a very brief and transient reference to the story of the apple:

Isaac Newton was walking in his garden when he saw an apple fall from the tree of gravity.

Voltaire apparently told this story to Newton’s niece and Conduit’s wife Catherine Barton, Had heard that from 1697 to 1726 he lived with Newton in the Wolstorp mansion. Another account of the story of Newton’s apple in the same year by the natural philosopher of the University of Cambridge, Robert GreenPublished in Latin as follows:

I wrote this when I thought Newton’s theory of gravity was the beginning of everything… This acclaimed theory comes from where all our knowledge is said to come from; From an apple. I heard this from a very smart and educated man named Martin Volks.

Also in another narration in the book “Crowon Heights and Northwest Yorkshire” (1892) from the quote William DassonA mathematician who probably studied at Newton University during the last few years of his stay at Cambridge, points to Newton’s apple tree and its role in gravity detection.

From these various narrations it can be deduced that Newton apparently in his old age told the story of the fall of the apple and its connection with the discovery of gravity to many people, although there is no written account of this narration by this scientist himself. On the other hand, in none of these narrations is there any reference to the apple hitting Newton’s head, and it is not clear exactly who first changed the story of the observation of the apple falling to Newton’s head; But it is almost certain that this story was not told by Newton himself and his friends and contemporaries, and it seems to be a fabrication.

Is there a Newton apple tree outside?

The first report of the Newton Mansion apple tree, which led to the discovery of gravity, is in The History of Grantham. Edmund Turner In 1806, ‌, 80 years after Newton’s death, in the footnote on page 160:

The tree is still standing and is being visited by strangers.

CharlesBrother Turner also painted a picture of this historic tree in 1820, showing its location in the Wolstorp mansion:

A sketch of the Newton apple tree by Charles Turner

Although Newton himself never said exactly which tree he saw the apple fall from, it turns out that there was only one apple tree in the whole garden, and thus there is no doubt as to which tree was Newton’s source of inspiration.

A photo of the Newton apple tree 1998

A photograph of the Newton Mansion apple tree (March 21, 1998), taken approximately from the same angle as Charles Turner (1820).

This apple tree has been under the care of several generations of families since the 1750s Woolrton They lived in this house as tenants from 1733 to 1947. Although many efforts were made to care for this ancient tree over the years, a storm in 1816 caused its trunk to break, as can be seen in Charles Turnor’s design. David Brewster, Author of Newton’s biography, who visited Newton’s mansion in 1830, drew a sketch of the broken tree. Several years later, a small carton box reached the Royal Society, which once contained several pieces of the apple tree and a copy of the Brewster design from Newton Garden.

Apparently, after the trunk of the tree was broken, people who came to visit the Wolstorp mansion picked up pieces of wood to make souvenirs and make small boxes. Edmund Turner also gave a piece of the tree to make a chair with. The watercolor design drawn by Turnor’s brother from this chair is now housed in the Royal Society.

Chair made of Newton apple tree

In addition, a piece of the tree bearing the initials of Newton’s name is kept in the Royal Society complex. In May 2010, the piece of wood went into space with the NASA shuttle during the STS-132 mission to celebrate zero gravity on the occasion of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations. NASA astronaut Pierce Sellers Before completing this mission, he said:

I take this piece of wood with me to space and let it hang in space a bit and confuse Isaac. When it is high, it will experience zero gravity conditions. So if there was an apple on it, the apple would not fall; Because this was the correctness of the first law that showed him his movement.

A piece of Newton apple tree with the first letters of his name

A piece of Newton apple tree with the initials of his name engraved on it and launched into space by a NASA shuttle

The storm that tore the trunk of this historic tree could have been the end of its life, and although some sources say it was, contemporary designs from the tree confirm that Newton’s apple tree was uprooted and survived after the storm. The 400-year-old tree is still housed in the Wolzthorpe mansion and has been visited by people from all over the world for at least 240 years.

Newton's apple tree in the Wolstorp mansion


There is a 21-year gap between the observation of an apple falling from a tree and the publication of The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (January 5, 1687), in which Newton spoke of the universal law of gravity; And despite the many accounts of Newton, and some manuscripts of which are available, some still question the truth of the apple’s fall in gravity detection because of this time interval. Some believe that Newton’s apple story was made by his mind to better describe the theory of gravity or even use it to increase his fame. At the same time, some believe that this mythical apple is in fact a kind of metaphor, because the apple has long been known as the fruit of knowledge through the story of Adam and Eve.

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In general, if we want to cite these narratives and assume that Newton told the truth to his friends, it must be said that Newton’s apple story was somewhat true, although none of them mentions the apple hitting Newton on the head, and exactly It is not clear where this story comes from. Of course, it is quite understandable if you still prefer to imagine the story of the discovery of gravity when an apple hits Newton. Three and a half centuries later, with the introduction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, physicists still did not fully gravitate to the mechanism of gravity. Maybe this time we need to drop a bigger apple!

I do not know how the world sees me; But I find myself just like a boy playing on the beach, occasionally looking for a smoother, more beautiful shell than usual; While the great ocean of truth of the valley before me is still undiscovered and vast. – Isaac Newton

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