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Newton’s Apple: Fact or Fiction?

6 Jun

We all know the story. A young Isaac Newton is sitting in his garden when – plonk! – an apple falls onto his head. As the scientist rubs his sore scalp, an idea enters his mind – could the same force that brought the apple plummeting to the ground also explain the motions of the Moon and the planets? In that instant the theory of gravity is born! At least that’s how the story goes. But did this cranial collision ever really happen?

Is Newton's apple just a maggot-infested myth? (credit: dreamiurg)

Is Newton’s apple just a maggot-infested myth? (credit: dreamiurg)

Newton’s famous apple incident is an event that – if true – pretty much kick-started modern science. By inspiring Newton’s theory of gravity, it laid the foundations upon which countless great minds have built their ideas. But did Newton really develop his theory after seeing a cascading apple? Or is the whole tale just a maggotinfested myth that’s been passed down through the years? I decided to find out.

The case for the fruity legend

Probably the most obvious place to look for evidence would be Isaac Newton’s own journals and notebooks. But alas, Newton never mentioned the apple in any of his writings. Instead, we must turn to a man named John Conduitt, who wrote about the incident some 60 years later. Conduitt, a politician by trade, was Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and the husband of Newton’s beloved half-niece, Catherine Barton.

In his Draft account of Newton’s life at Cambridge, Conduitt describes a fresh-faced, 23-year-old Isaac Newton returning to his mother’s Lincolnshire home in 1666 – not because he missed his mum’s cooking, but because the plague had forced Cambridge University to shut down. There, Conduitt wrote, “whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the same power of gravity (which made an apple fall from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the Earth but must extend much farther than was usually thought…”

So Conduitt may not describe Newton taking an apple to the head, nor even that the scientist actually observed the falling fruit, but he at least makes a pretty strong reference to it.

Woolsthorpe Manor - Newton's Lincolnshire birthplace (credit: David Ireland)

Woolsthorpe Manor – Newton’s Lincolnshire birthplace (credit: David Ireland)

Around the same time, the French philosopher Voltaire was also helping to perpetuate the fruity legend. In An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (1727), he wrote: “Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens, had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.” Voltaire probably heard the story from Catherine Barton, whom he described as Newton’s “very charming niece”, when he visited England in the 1720s.

But the strongest evidence for Newton’s apple comes from another of Sir Isaacs’s close friends, an antiquarian called William Stukeley. In 1752, a quarter of a century after Newton’s death, Stukeley published his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life. Truth be told, it’s a rather drab and long-winded account of the scientist’s life (though we do find out what the great scientist had for breakfast: “an infusion of orange peel in boiling water”, apparently, “with bread & butter” functional yet tangy). But there on page 15, in a beautifully handwritten script, is an anecdote that waters the mouth more than a freshly-baked apple pie…

William Stukeley's handwritten apple anecdote

William Stukeley’s handwritten apple anecdote

One spring day in April 1726, Stukeley visited an 83-year-old Newton in Kensington, London – at that time situated in the countryside. The two men spent the day together, profiting from the fresh air and chatting on into the evening.

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank thea [sic] under the shade of some apple trees…,” recalled Stukeley. “Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. ‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself, occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways or upwards but constantly to the Earth’s centre?’”

So, while drinking this cup of ‘thea’ in the dusky evening light, an elderly Sir Isaac actually recounted the falling apple story to his friend Stukeley. The famous apple! From the horse’s mouth!

A mouldy tale?

But can we really trust Stukeley? After all, he was a very good friend of Newton and may have been tempted to mythologise the scientist. As Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, writes: “biographers, certainly in 1720, are not objective reporters running around checking facts. They are often fans of their subjects, as Stukeley was of Newton.”

And why would Newton have waited 60 years before sharing the story with someone? One explanation may be that he saw a falling apple in his youth and gradually embellished the story over time. It’s easy to see why it’d be such an attractive tale: a simple visual metaphor for his “Eureka!” moment; a humorous way to explain how gravity works. And then there’s the fact that Newton was deeply interested in religion, so the nod to the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit might have appealed to him.

But even if Newton did observe a tumbling apple in 1666, it’s highly unlikely that he developed his theory of gravity right there on the spot. At some point, though – and this is what fits in nicely with the apple story – he came to realise that the same force which governs the acceleration of objects towards the ground also reaches far out into space. It wasn’t until 1687, some 20 years after the alleged apple incident, that Newton published his universal law of gravitation, showing that the orbits of the planets around the Sun – and the Moon around the Earth – could be explained by the bodies’ mutual gravitational attraction.

The Moon's orbit - beautifully explained by Newton's law of universal gravitation (credit: wvs)

The Moon’s orbit – beautifully explained by Newton’s law of universal gravitation (credit: wvs)

One thing we can be sure of is that the apple never struck Newton on the head. That detail was added by a later writer, Isaac D’Israeli, who evidently had a penchant for slapstick comedy. But that hasn’t stopped the story from entering popular consciousness. Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac Newton’s birthplace and the home he returned to in 1666, has since become something of a pilgrimage site for starry-eyed physicists. In the house’s garden, visible from Newton’s old bedroom window, is said to be the very apple tree that the young scientist sat under nearly 350 years ago.

The apple tree under which Newton is said to have sat. The tree was reportedly re-rooted after a storm toppled it in 1816 (credit: dexter_mixwith)

As for the apple itself, the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor produces a rare variety of green cooking apple known as ‘Flower of Kent’, which has been described as mealy, sharp, and quite flavourless. So if Newton really did see one fall to the ground, he probably didn’t enjoy eating it.

Ultimately, perhaps we’ll never know the full truth behind Newton’s apple. Maybe we should trust those anecdotes provided by his friends. Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. After all, Newton went on to develop his theory of gravity in the end, apple or not. One thing’s for sure though – we should be glad that it was Newton sitting under that tree. Anyone else would have required a whole barrel full of fruit…

This blog post is based on an article published in the June/July 2013 edition of Guru magazine… download the magazine for free here!

An Inventory of the Invisible

11 Nov

When you come to think of it, so much of the important stuff in life is invisible. Time. Gravity. Thoughts. The human genome. Atoms. Energy. Electricity. The past. The future.

In this animated TEDTalk from 2009, comedy writer and TV producer John Lloyd gives a guided tour around everything that’s impossible to see. It’s well worth 9 minutes of your time, being as witty and stuffed full of quirky facts as you’d expect from the man who’s behind the endlessly brilliant TV show QI.

“We can see matter, but we can’t see what’s the matter.”

Frankenstein: the Birth of a Monster

30 Oct

When it comes to horror stories, Frankenstein is probably the most famous of them all. Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has sent shivers of fear through generations of readers, inspired countless adaptations, and become the gold standard for tales of terror and suspense. It’s a story that becomes even more unsettling, though, when you realise it was inspired by twitching corpses, violent volcanoes and disturbing nightmares…

Mary Shelley’s famous novel barely needs an introduction. Its protagonist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, is fiction’s original ‘mad’ scientist, dedicating himself to chemistry at university so that he can learn how to create life out of inanimate matter. The being he cooks up, however, is repulsive:

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, … his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Dr Frankenstein looks with horror upon his monster (credit: Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein)

Disgusted, Dr Frankenstein deserts his horrible creation – but the monster will come to haunt him for the rest of his life. First, it murders Frankenstein’s little brother; then, when the scientist refuses to create a female companion for it, it kills his closest friend and beloved wife too. Distraught, Frankenstein vows to take revenge and pursue his monster until one of them is dead. But the scientist fails in his mission and, after months of pursuit, he dies from pneumonia near the North Pole.

When Mary Shelley began to write her spine-chilling story, she was just 18 years old and without a novel to her name. So what inspired her nightmarish tale? In an introduction to the book’s third edition in 1831, Shelley finally explained how she “came to think of and to dilate upon such a hideous idea”. As it turns out, the true story behind Frankenstein is even more intriguing than the novel itself, involving electrified frogs, reanimated corpses, and a rather strange summer holiday…

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Operation Doorstep or: How to Nuke a Family of Mannequins

29 Aug

For me, there’s something profoundly creepy about mannequins. It might be those soulless, I’m-going-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep eyes. Or those smiling, impossibly unwrinkled faces. Or it might just be a side effect of my early childhood visit to a wax museum on the Isle of Wight, which still haunts me this very day. (It was like someone had purposefully set out to create the weirdest museum on Earth, complete with a terrifying Chamber of Horrors, several inexplicably naked female figures, and a truly nightmarish taxidermy collection of winged monkeys, two-headed lambs, and cats dressed as Victorians – I kid you not.)

But I digress. Mannequins. What could be worse than a mannequin? Well a whole blimmin’ community of them for starters. And on 17 March 1953, several families of these glassy-eyed dummies gathered together deep within the Nevada desert for a rather unusual occasion. They were about to experience the full force of a nuclear attack.

A mannequin mother and children await the nuclear attack

This strange mannequin community was the brainchild of the US Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Close by was a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon (‘Annie’) that was about to be detonated – the latest in a series of tests carried out by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The location – the Nevada Test Site – had been used for nuclear testing many times before, but this test was different. ‘Operation Doorstep’ was its official name, and it was designed to show what would happen if a nuclear bomb hit a typical American suburb.

About 1km from the explosion, the FCDA built a simple wooden-frame house with two storeys and a basement, kitting it out with government surplus furniture. An identical house was built further away, at a distance of nearly 2.5km from ground zero, and mannequins were placed in the rooms and basements of both houses. Several bomb shelters were also scattered around the site, as well as a selection of vehicles of various shapes and sizes.

Mannequins wait in one of the basement shelters

“This car will go thru the atomic blast”

More than 600 people watched the test, which exploded with around the same energy as the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima 8 years earlier.

The ‘Annie’ nuclear explosion (top) is watched by bedazzled onlookers (bottom)

Unsurprisingly, the house nearest the explosion collapsed in dramatic fashion: the ground floor was completely demolished, the first floor collapsed, and the roof was ripped off. The house further away, on the other hand, stood firm, though its doors, windows and interior were badly damaged. The best protection was provided by the bomb shelters dotted around the test site, which sustained hardly any damage even when located just a few hundred metres from the blast.

The explosion lights up the nearest house (top), which is heated by the thermal radiation and torn apart by the subsequent blast wave. The elapsed time between the first and last photos is less than 2.5 seconds

And the mannequins? They had mixed fortunes. Those in the top two floors of the house closest to the explosion were buried under debris and didn’t stand much of a chance. The mannequins in the more distant house suffered a weaker shock, though many of them were injured by debris. “Heads of the mannequins were generally pockmarked and clothing was cut by flying glass,” notes an FCDA booklet published after the test. “Some … had evidence of more serious injury, such as holes the size of a quarter.” The mannequins in the basements of the two houses fared better, coming through the blast unmoved and unharmed.

A silent dinner party in house #2 is rudely interrupted

The living room is turned into a disaster area

Judging from these photos, Operation Doorstep was a pretty vivid demonstration of the devastating power of nuclear weapons. However, it’s somewhat debatable whether blowing up a dummy village can tell us much about the real-life effects of a nuclear bomb. Even if they survived the initial blast, someone this close to ground zero would likely be affected by radiation sickness, either from the initial radiation or from the radioactive material that drifted to the ground after the explosion (the nuclear fallout).

Luckily for mannequins, though, they don’t need to worry about the long-term effects of radiation. This means that they’d probably last longer than us during a nuclear holocaust – maybe that’s what they’re all smiling about…

Photos courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office. Click here for a peek inside the now-closed Brading Waxworks  – probably the weirdest museum on Earth.

Imagining the year 2000 (in 1900)

19 Aug

The other day, I stumbled across these brilliant French illustrations imagining what life would be like in the year 2000. Issued between 1899 and 1910, they were enclosed inside cigarette/cigar boxes or sent as postcards, and the first series was produced for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

It’s pretty funny now to look back at some of the artists’ predictions – one can’t help but think they might be a little bit disappointed with today’s lack of flying firemen and ever-present robots. But I wonder how many of our predictions for the year 3000 will come true (according to Busted, we’ll all be living underwater with lots of naked, triple-breasted women).

Anyway, here’s a few of the retro-futuristic illustrations by Villemard and Jean-Marc Côté (view the full set here):

Gravity-defying firemen

A conductor operates his mechanical orchestra

Madame at her toilette

Croquet in diving helmets!

A lazy teacher feeds textbooks into his pupils’ heads

Not all of them are so far-fetched though. This one is essentially Skype, albeit with vintage equipment…

Skype, retro-future style. Check out that hat…

And I’d be very grateful if anyone could explain this one to me. Some kind of equine theatre maybe? A fully-clothed version of Equus?

A horse on a stage. No idea what this one’s about…

The Astronomical Drawings of Monsieur Trouvelot

8 May

Back in the late 19th century, when astrophotography was still in its infancy, stargazers had to get creative if they wanted to take snapshots of the heavens. Luckily, there were people around like Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a talented French artist with a penchant for astronomy. Trouvelot moved to the States with his family when he was in his 20s, and is probably best known for an unfortunate incident in which he introduced the gypsy moth into North America – now a notorious pest of hardwood trees.

The upside of this mishap, though, was that Trouvelot turned to astronomy and began to draw what he saw in the night sky. For some of his illustrations – the close-ups of the planets and the Moon, for example – Trouvelot used some of the most powerful telescopes available at the time, such as the 26″ refractor at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.. For others, like his depictions of the comet and the meteor shower, Trouvelot just drew what he observed with his naked eye.

In 1882, the artist published fifteen of his drawings in a book – the Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. Here are some of my favourites, starting off with a stunning aurora and a Cyclops-esque Jupiter:

The aurora borealis (Northern Lights), observed 1st March 1872

The planet Jupiter, observed 1st November 1880

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A very brief history of personal computing

22 Jan

Here’s a lovely little video (via Asymco)  showing the rise and fall of different personal computing platforms since 1975. On the vertical axis: number of units sold per year (note the log scale). On the horizontal axis: computing platform (in alphabetical order). Read more about the data analysis here.

No surprises about which platforms are currently dominating the market, but let’s spare a thought for poor old Commodore 64 and Amiga, who both experienced a dramatic fall from grace in the early 1990s.

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