Catch a falling apple: Isaac Newton and myths of genius

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  • Catch a falling apple: Isaac Newton and myths of genius Patricia Fara

    Newton has become a legendary figure belonging to the distant past rather than a historical person who lived at a specific time. Historians and scientists have constantly reinterpreted many anecdotal tales describing Newtons achievements and behaviour, but the most famous concerns the falling apple in his country garden. Newtons apple conjures up multiple allegorical resonances, and examining its historical accuracy is less important than uncovering the mythical truths embedded within this symbol. Because interest groups fashion different collective versions of the past, analysing mythical tales can reveal fundamental yet conflicting attitudes towards science and its practices.

    People who happily admit to understanding nothing of Newtons physics do know that he watched an apple fall from a tree. Now Englands greatest scientific myth, this story was originated by Newton himself in the early 18th century, but it only became famous 100 years later. As Roland Barthesr commented on Einstein, the publication of cartoons sig- nifies that a genius has become a legend, and in the Victorian equivalent of 1066 and all that, John Leech gently mocked Newtons alleged flash of inspiration (Figure l)?. Caricaturists rely on exaggerating features by which their subject is already instantly rec- ognizable, but they also contribute to fashion- ing a famous figures public image3. Like St Catherines wheel or St Jeromes lion, the apple serves both to identify Newton and also to conjure up well-known parables of his achievements.

    But mythical stories constantly change and acquire new meanings. In the 18th century, Newton had been characterized by a comet, while Leechs cartoon also shows two Newtonian attributes familiar to 19th-century readers but now forgotten: his dog Diamond, who destroyed years of work by knocking a candle onto a pile of papers; and the pipe that Newton was said to have absent-mindedly tamped with a womans finger. The apple

    Patricia Fara

    is a Fellow of Clare College and an affiliated lecturer in the Dept of History and Philosophy of Science, Uni- versity of Cambridge. Her major book is Sympathetic Attractions: Magnetic Practices, Beliefs, and Symbo- lism in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton, 1996). She has also co-edited two collections of essays, Memory and The Changing World (both Cambridge University Press), and published articles on various historical topics including 18th-century England, the aurora borealis and scientific portraiture. She is cur- rently researching and writing lsaac Newtons Post- humous Lives: Scientific Genius and Secular Saint (to be published by Picador Press), a book about Isaac Newtons construction as a scientific and national hero, which also examines how our ideas of what it means to be a genius are constantly changing.

    Figure 1 The Punch cartoonist John Leechs satirical illustration of Newton receiving his famous flash of inspiration from a falling apple in his garden at Woolsthorpe. Reproduced from Ref. 2, by permission of the British Library (shelfmark 9505.d.3).

    landing on Newtons head was Disraelis In the 19th century, this was far from being embellishment to the basic story that, as a regarded as a trivial anecdote. Recalling the young man, Newton was sitting in his forbidden fruit of knowledge in the Garden Woolsthorpe garden - a rural retreat from of Eden, it hinted at key philosophical and the plague at Cambridge - when a falling theological debates about knowledge and apple reminded him of the moon circling progress by evoking a quintessentially round the earth and inspired him to formu- English scene of contemplation in the se- late his laws of universal gravityh. eluded countryside. The fierceness with which

    0160-9327/99/$ - see front matter 0 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: SO160-9327(99)01222-3 Endeavour Vol. 23(4) 1999 167

  • writers contested the anecdotes veracity indi- cates that far deeper truths than whether the episode had actually occurred were at stake. Its implications were central to academic con- troversies about the conduct of science and the nature of discovery, and also to broader social questions about class, education and morality.

    Myths of genius Scientific knowledge does not simply dif- fuse outwards from a core elite to reach an ever-widening public. Scientific practition- ers are influenced by the attitudes of the society within which they live, so that there is two-way trafficking between science and its audience@. Because different versions of Newtonian anecdotes have frequently ap- peared in mass-produced publications, as well as in biographies aimed at more specialized readers, they yield valuable information about how Newton became an international icon of scientific genius and also about changing scientific ideologies. Far from being of periph- eral importance, they played a key role in formulating the narrative myths that shaped the burgeoning scientific disciplines in 18th- and 19th-century England.

    For many people, Newton has become a legendary figure from Englands distant past rather than a historical person living at a spe- cific time and place. Myths structure our per- ceptions of history and of reality by providing guiding narratives that help to create, define and bond communities, most typically by giv- ing them an origin and a destiny. Newtons apple has much in common with other ro- manticized moments of discovery, such as Archimedes shout of Eureka from his bath, or James Watts childhood fascination with a boiling kettle. Many writers have placed Newton in an astronomical lineage of great men such as Galileo and Kepler, making him part of a continuous historical narrative that underpins a progressivist model of science. In common with other scientific founding fathers, Newton is now ritually commemo- rated with conferences, statues and anniver- sary celebrations, even though many of his ideas have been relegated to a discarded col- lection of superseded theorie@.

    Throughout the 19th century, Newtonian anecdotes were intensely discussed because, in the hands of some authors, they threatened to disrupt rather than consolidate prevailing myths that governed scientific research and so- cial hierarchies. Reinterpretations of Newtons life for different audiences were not just oma- mental flourishes but were laden with ideo- logical import, so that his falling apple articu- lated at a mythical level societys changing opinions about the nature of genius, moral behaviour and codes of scientific practice.

    Scholarly historians contemptuously dis- missed anecdotal material, but writers aiming at less-specialized audiences preferred to ex- plore their subjects character and imbue their narratives with moral prescriptions. For exam- ple, Michael Faradays biographers adapted episodes from his life to glorify him either as a Romantic genius or as a working-class, self- taught hero. Florence Nightingale became a

    role model for girls, transformed into a para- gon of hard work and self-sacrifice that per- sonified achievement yet confirmed social expectations of female domestic virtues*.

    Scientists were tom between conflicting images of Newton. Some were attracted by the concept of a unique inspired genius who had been able to achieve his momentous dis- coveries by abandoning conventional meth- ods. But this vision of a Newton who trans- gressed normal codes of behaviour clashed with another role model, the virtuous worker engaged in methodical, collaborative re- search. Scientific polemicists concerned to legitimate their own status and shape the face of science favoured those versions of Newton that reinforced their own attitudes9.

    Discussions about Newtons character ex- tended far beyond practising scientists and didactic texts. The conflicts about genius and codes of conduct within scientific com- munities formed just one aspect of larger controversies involving class structures, morality and education. Many people who knew little about gravity or optics lauded Newtons legendary patience, modesty and industry because he embodied virtues appro- priate not merely for scientific practitioners, but for all Englishmen seeking moral, finan- cial and social improvement.

    Telling stories The story of the apple first achieved promi- nence in the 1820s and 1830s as part of the chauvinistic arguments between Newtons French and Scottish biographers, Jean Biot and David Brewster. Biots account infuriated English people because he maintained that Newton had never regained his former bril- liance after an episode of insanity. As part of these debates, Brewster denied Biots descrip- tion of Newton receiving inspiration under his apple tree. The biographers fascination with the story was evident: Biot described how, on a pilgrimage to Woolsthorpe, he had gathered a few leaves to carry them religiously back home, and even the sceptical Brewster pur- loined some of the trees roots. By the middle of the century, what was generally purported to be the original tree had been blown down and converted into a chair. Nevertheless, it sur- vived metaphorically as the focus of debates about genius, science and morality. As one of Brewsters critics argued, Let the memory of this precious fruit be carefully preserved as an illustration of the eloquence which some- times lies concealed in common facts lo.

    Newtons apple became a vivid iconographi- cal attribute incorporated in images that placed him in a mythical time and location. As part of the Victorian turn towards medievalism, artists portrayed a saint-like Newton within academic chapels. For instance, the Oxford University Museum, belatedly constructed to provide facilities for teaching science, re- sembled a Gothic cathedral. Here, Newton was sculpted in schoolboy clothes, humbly gazing down at an apple apparently fallen from Heaven, a member of a saintly scien- tific brotherhood including Socrates and Newtons arch-enemy Leibniz (Figure 2).

    These men of science are united by their fame but timelessly displaced from the con- text of their discoveries.

    Such deceptively unproblematic images of a mythical moment of discovery concealed virulent contemporary debates that were dominated by two fundamental themes: the immediacy of Newtons insight and the in- nateness of his genius. Although apparently about the veracity of a particular incident, these discussions reformulated long-standing and still-unresolved arguments about the nature of creativity and the relative impor- tance of heredity and environment.

    Flashes of inspiration In the early 19th century, writers were propa- gating a new concept of the Romantic artistic genius, a creative man for whom composition was sudden, unanticipated, almost involun- tary. By pinning down discovery to a discrete moment, anecdotes about Newtons apple, Galileos swinging lamp and Watts kettle align scientific insight with literary creativ- ity. They convey an image of effortlessness, paralleling Shelleys insistence that it is an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study. Propagandists argued that Newton, Englands divinely inspired philosopher, gained imme- diate access to natural truth:

    Others the thread-bare story oft rehearsed - When as the godlike sage of Albions isle Beheld the apple fall, - at once dispersed

    Were Natures mists I 7

    Just as nascent Methodist mythology de- scribed the infant John Wesley being plucked from a fire to found a new religion, so Newton was struck by an apple to create the science of mathematical physics.

    But although this tale of instantaneous con- version reinforced Newtons status as a genius. it conflicted with contemporary scientific ideo- logies of cooperative experimental research and denied the myth of cumulative scientific progress. Scaling the lofty heights of truth by thinking in solitude was equivalent to moun- taineering, where celebrating the individual heroic Briton who reached the peak of a moun- tain contradicted the athletic teamwork ethic. Polemicists addressing diverse audiences stressed Newtons dependence on previous knowledge, the help he gained from his con- temporaries, and the ways in which modern scientists were building on his achievements. They judged that Those who estimate Newton the most highly, are those who think least of the popular story of the falling apple rJ.

    The British Association for the Advance- ment of Science (BAAS) envisaged science as a collaborative project in which theories were to be formulated inductively on the basis of experimental results. Rather than celebrat- ing individual flashes of theoretical intuition or esoteric mathematical deduction by a soli- tary individual, the BAAS encouraged less- privileged men to participate in the national project of scientific improvement led by the well-educated. But this democraticizing zeal

    168 Endeavour Vol. 23(4) 1999

  • led to conflicts between scientific communi- ties. In an early diatribe against industrializ- ation, Thomas Carlyle used the apple tree story to express elitist scepticism about Baconian experimental research conducted outside the traditional universities: No Newton, by silent meditation, now discovers the system of the world from the falling of an apple; but some quite other than Newton stands in his Museum, his Scientific Institution, and behind whole batteries of retorts, digesters, and galvanic piles, imperatively interrogates Nature, - who, however, shows no haste to answerr5.

    The concept of instantaneous scientific discovery paralleling Shelleys effortless poetry contravened ethical guidelines gov- erning Victorian codes of behaviour, particu- larly Protestant insistence on the rewards of work. The idea that Newton had been given immediate access to truth undercut the sci- entific manifesto that knowledge was to be achieved through human endeavour rather than by divine dispensation. The math- ematician Augustus De Morgan satirized the Eureka view of science: . the Newton of the world at large sat down under a tree, saw an apple fall, and after an intense reverie, the length of which is not stated, got up, with the theory of gravitation well planned, if not fit to printrh. For him, philosophical work should resemble methodical book- keeping rather than poetic composition. De Morgans version of Newton went through 13 years of detailed calculations, false steps and dashed expectations before successfully formulating his theory of gravitation.

    Like scientists, polemical authors writing for less-learned audiences tried to reconcile Newtons genius with his patient industri- ousness. They incorporated him within a pan- theon of British heroes who had achieved fame and wealth through self-sacrifice and hard work. The Triumphs of Perseverance and Enterprise exhorted its readers: the more you know of [Newton] the more will

    your desire strengthen to approach him in virtue, wisdom and usefulness And work is duty - thy duty - the duty of all man- kindr7. Childrens moralizing books were packed with Newtonian anecdotes, but often failed to mention the apple tree. Advocates of the rewards of labour explained how this fortuitous observation had initially led Newton to erroneous conclusions, empha- sizing that he had only won the prize of truth after years of intensive research. They encouraged children to model themselves on this assiduous learner who diligently pro- ceeded step by step, displaying a laudable humility and simplicity. When they did in- clude the falling apple, they used it to rein- force images of Newton as an industrious worker. Such an everyday occurrence could, they taught, only be interpreted by an assidu- ously prepared mind that had already been devoted for years to the laborious and patient application of the subject of gravitation8.

    Industriousness was tightly allied with re-

    Figure 2 Through the initiative of John Ruskin, in 1860 this statue of Newton became one of the first six to be completed for the new Oxford University Museum. Newton appears as a diminutive medieval figure in a Gothic cathedral of science, one of a timeless scientific community including Galileo with a telescope lens (to Newtons left) and Humphry Davy with a miners lamp.

    to the mental training that had made Newton receptive to the falling apple, many prosely- tizers emphasized the theological commit- ment of the Christian Philosopher:

    Newton believed for many a year before The Hand in Heaven shook the Apple down?

    In monthly instalments, thousands of Methodist children received the combined messages of work and faith: In the path in which Divine Providence had placed him, he [Newton] walked with great carefulness, acknowledging God in all his ways. He was successful, because he was diligent .,.?a. As propagandists made genius compatible with Christian virtue, they contributed to Newtons cultural sanctification, asserting that he was a good man, as well as a great philosopher*r.

    Are geniuses born or made? What we call the nature-nurture controversy carried enormous implications for science, education and class mobility. Writers from all positions on the social spectrum hesitated to emphasize the innateness of Newtons genius because it precluded the possibility of personal development. For Newtons propagandists to portray him as a born genius would have been to deny the value of the improving enterprises in which they were involved, whether the BAAS, Cambridge University or self-help. Most authors compromised by making him an unusual child whose true genius had only flowered in the fertile soil of the English edu- cational system. Vegetative imagery pervaded debates about the growth of genius, and the falling apple itself provided a new mixed meta- phor: the fall of the apple from a tree in the or- chard . . was the mustard-seed out of which grew the grand theory of universal gravitation*?.

    Brewster averred that Cambridge was the real birth-place of Newtons genius. This widely reiterated judgement enabled William Whewell, the influential mathematical scien- tist and philosopher, to reinforce Cambridge as a unique centre of excellence for what he held to be the leading science, astronomical physics. By stressing his own meteoric rise at Cambridge after his arrival as a scholarship boy, he identified himself - in Romantic fashion - with the mythical aspects of his hero. Similarly, Henry Brougham, leading light of the BAAS and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, insisted that Newtons genius did not show itself at an early age. In this way he could call Newton a matchless genius and yet still accommo- date him within a narrative of continuous sci- entific progress achieved through education. In a widely reported public speech, Brougham encouraged researchers to emulate Newtons industriousness and develop his ideas fur- ther23. John Timbs, a prolific, persuasive sci- entific journalist, set Newton within a pro- gressivist history (starting with the Druids) that extolled the British school system24.

    Celebrating individual geniuses ran against deterministic ideologies favoured by purvey- ors of an egalitarian approach to knowledge. Political activists, especially those from a Non- conformist background, inherited the demo- cratic educational views expressed by the radi- cal chemist Joseph Priestley. He had stressed Newtons industry and patient thought to counter elitist hierarchical models of solitary geniuses making instantaneous discoveries. Thomas Hodgskin, an early 19th-century radi- cal journalist who influenced Karl Marx, amongst others, elaborated an environmental thesis that substituted progress for God by making geniuses the product of their times. Equating geographical, technological and scientific discoverers, Hodgskin considered that men such as Columbus, Watt and Newton were amongst those master-spirits who gather and concentrate within themselves some great but scattered truths, the consequences of

    ligious observance, especially for evangelical In these didactic reinterpretations, the falling numberless previous discoveries which, fortu- believers in free will, for whom individual apple symbolized not instantaneous discovery nately for them, are just dawning on society effort paved the route to salvation. In addition but the values of perseverance and labour. as they arrive at the age of reflection*s.

    Endeavour Vol. 23(4) 1999 169

  • Modern apples Nowadays Newton is a legendary figure whose achievements are too remote for him to feature prominently in the heroic tales of discovery that bond modem communities of scientists, although his apple has become a graphically powerful icon of science. It has also been converted into commercial prod- ucts advertising British heritage. Wooden apples and apple pies entice tourists at Woolsthorpe, whereas Newtons favourite pudding recipe is displayed on the notice- board at Cambridges Newton Institute. When Apple computers ceased producing their Newton range, newspapers punned liberally on the falling apple image: the headline above a cartoon very similar to Leechs ran Users get the pip as Apple knocks Newton on the head26.

    For physicists, the falling apple has be- come a mythical foundational narrative. The birth of a science that relies so heavily on mathematical reasoning, cumulative obser- vation and institutional collective research has been condensed into a flash of inspired theoretical insight in a secluded country gar- den. During the 1987 anniversary celebrations of Newtons Principia, Stephen Hawking, who now holds Newtons chair at Cambridge, was photographed at Woolsthorpe beneath a descendant of Newtons supposedly original apple tree. Re-enacting a questioned event, this publicity gimmick conflated the present day both with the historical past and mythi- cal time, thus helping Hawking to promote himself as Newtons natural successor in an

    apostolic succession of great geniuses. Although its original associations are now concealed beneath layers of accumulated collective memory, Newtons apple is still laden with mythical import.

    Acknowledgements This article is based on Patricia Faras book Isaac Newton 5 Posthumous Lives: Scientific Genius and Secular Saint, to be published by Picador Press.

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    13 Cooper, T. (1845) The Purgatory of Suicides, p. 337, Jeremiah How (arguing against this view)

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    Perseverance and Enterprise: Recorded as Examples for the Young, pp. 103-104, p. 141, Darton

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    20 Anon (1837) Youths Instructer [sic] and Guardian 21, 78

    21 Anon ( 18 16) Buds of Genius: 01; Some Account of the Early Lives of Celebrated Characters who were Remarkable in their Childhood, pp. 29-30, Darton, Harvey and Darton

    22 Milner, T. (1846) The Gallery of Nature, p. 38, Wm S. Orr

    23 Brougham, H. (1858) Addresses on Popular Literature, and on the Monument to Sir Isaac Newton: Delivered at Liverpool and Grantham, Edward Law

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    170 Endeavour Vol. 23(4) 1999


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