Saturday, May 14th, 2011
The famous apple tree whose momentous 1666 fruit-dropping inspired Isaac Newton to develop his theory of gravity is a popular stop for visitors to Woolsthorpe Manor, the house Newton was born in in 1642. It’s getting increasingly popular, in fact, with visitors doubling this year to 33,000 from last year’s 15,000.
The tree blew down in a storm in 1820. The roots re-established themselves, to everyone’s relief, and the tree kept right on growing, but the trunk now dips and rises and the new growth has remained very close to the ground. To get a picture underneath it, you have to really squeezle yourself in there. Since everyone wants to get a picture looking pensive under the 400-year-old apple tree, the constant tramping is compacting the ground and could damage the roots.
To protect the root system and keep the tree alive another 400 years, the National Trust has fenced it in. It’s not an obnoxiously tall eyesore, though. It’s a two-foot-tall, elliptical (like the motion of planets!) willow fence custom-made by Richard and Suzanne Kerwood of Windrush Willow in Exeter. They built it on site in full view of the public.
The National Trust isn’t quite sure why the apple tree has generated this sudden explosion of interest. It may be a result of the media attention it received last year when a piece of the tree belonging to the Royal Society went into space on the Atlantis shuttle so this ultimate symbol of gravity could experience the absence of it.
The legend that has arisen around Newton’s eureka moment has an apple falling out of the tree onto Isaac’s head while he mused beneath it. According to the Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life, written by biographer and archaeologist William Stukeley to whom Newton relayed the episode as they shared a cuppa under some apple trees, it wasn’t quite so cartoonish, but I think the real story has a beautiful unfolding drama all of its own.
After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. 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 him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a comtemplative mood: “why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.”
That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe & thus by degrees, he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the earth, & of the heavenly bodys: to consider thir distances, their magnitudes, thir periodical revolutions: to find out, that this property, conjointly with a progressive motion impressed on them in the beginning, perfectly solv’d thir circular courses; kept the planets from falling upon one another, or dropping all together into one center. & thus he unfolded the Universe. this was the birth of those amazing discoverys, whereby he built philosophy on a solid foundation, to the astonishment of all Europe.