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