Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

Apple dancers at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics

Olympic sports have continued here; the Paralympics don’t end until tonight. British viewers saw the full Paralympic opening ceremony, and we’ve had 4 channels showing events live all day long. I gather that in the US, NBC showed only about 5 hours of the Paralympic action, total—hard to believe.

A performer enters, riding in her wheelchair on a gigantic apple, which sits on a book. Books made up another theme of the ceremony, representing, among other works, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica

The Paralympics’ opening ceremony, like the Olympic ceremony, tackled a revolution, in this case the scientific revolution. The connection between Newton’s apple—represented in many forms, including the real apples given to each spectator on arrival—and the Paralympics might not be obvious, though when you watch some of the people who run on those remarkable blades instead of feet, it’s clear that science and technology underpin some events. But I’d guess that the choice of theme had much to do with the contemporary world’s most famous disabled person being British and a scientist: Stephen Hawking, who narrated the production.

Professor Hawking, looking very small on the main set in the enormous arena

The UK can’t actually claim that the scientific revolution began here—can’t leave out Copernicus for starters, and he was Polish—but I guarantee you that a good proportion of the population finds that the phrase “scientific revolution” brings to mind that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head 100 years after Copernicus. Newton wasn’t actually conked on the head, but there was an apple tree, he did watch an apple fall and, watching it, wondered why apples always fall down and never out to the side or something, a bit of daydreaming that led to the universal law of gravitation. Descendants of Newton’s apple tree still grow in the same orchard at his home in Lincolnshire, which I visited just a couple of days before those apple-wielding performers (see illustrations) appeared on my TV/telly, so I’m using that as an excuse to write about Newton in the middle of my streak of Olympic-ceremony posts.

A 430-voice chorus sings Principia , a violently discordant piece by composer Errollyn Wallen inspired by Newton’s work

Isaac Newton was born prematurely at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642, so small that the nurse said he could fit into a quart jug (in the US we’d have said pitcher; Brits think pitcher is as quaint and old-fashioned as Americans think jug is). Servants sent out for supplies for the baby sat down and goofed off rather than hurry, as they didn’t expect him to be alive when they got back anyway.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was born, grew up, and did some of his most famous work.

On the other hand, local superstition at the time held that it was lucky to be born on Christmas Day. It was also supposed to be lucky to be born after the death of your father, as odd as that sounds, and the baby’s father had died a few months before. When his mother, Hannah, remarried, she left three-year-old Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor with his grandmother. Lots of books will tell you that this meant her new husband didn’t accept his step-son, but the National Trust (historic preservation group that maintains the house) says it’s more likely that Hannah shrewdly left her son in the Newton home to make sure no one questioned his right to inherit the place.

The farm at Woolsthorpe Manor

When he was older, his mother also demanded he do his familial duty and work on the farm—Woolsthorpe Manor sounds grand, but it was really just a glorified farmhouse. Had that worked out, he might have remained illiterate like his father, who never learned to write his own name. (There’s a grid of small cup-shaped gouges on a plaster wall at Woolsthorpe Manor that historians think is an inventory of livestock; presumably that was how you kept track if you couldn’t read or write.) But Newton’s mother found she could lead a scientific genius to the land, but she couldn’t make him cultivate it.

Newton, first scientist ever knighted, was granted a coat of arms; claiming descent from a certain baron, he was allowed to adopt that baron’s ancient symbol. The crossed bones are not uncommon on arms and don’t imply piracy; National Trust staff suggested they are sheep bones, as the family made its money in sheep.

In the end, she allowed him to go to school, and from school to Cambridge, where she expressed her feelings about his choice not to be a farmer by giving him so little money that he had to work as a servant for richer students. It doesn’t seem to have mattered much. The only thing that could keep him away from Cambridge was the plague, which closed the place down in 1665.

As far as is known, this is the apple tree from which Newton said he saw the apple fall, one of several in the orchard that lies just outside the front door at Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s certainly over 400 years old. The variety is Flower of Kent, and it’s a cooking apple.

So Newton went back to the farm and sat there by himself, totally revolutionizing science, later saying “I was in the prime of my age for invention”. He not only saw the apple fall and worked out his theory of gravitation, but developed the three Laws of Motion, invented calculus, worked out principles of mechanics and of planetary motion, and did famous experiments with light. His work always began with observation, and he was such an inveterate experimenter that, rather less famously, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye to see how pressing on his retina would alter his vision.

Performers pull giant apples into the stadium

A trip to Woolsthorpe Manor includes a chance to see the window that Newton covered, leaving only a small opening so that he could direct sunlight through a prism and break white light up into colours. Newton didn’t invent the prism; people knew them from way back. Ships used prisms to let light in below decks, for one thing, and Newton bought his prism at a country fair, maybe sold as toy for children. In any case, before Newton, people thought that prisms added colour to light, and that all colours were mixtures of dark and light, so that (I’m not making this up) one theorist said that red was produced by the purest white light with the least amount of dark mixed in (I know, I know) and black was pure darkness, but if there was just a little light mixed into the darkness, you got a sort of dull blue. Newton used a second prism to bend the light again, merging the colours to produce white light, which pretty much knocked the ol’ prisms-apply-colours theory off the table (and at least it didn’t require any of that needle-in-the-eye business).

A giant apple floats in.  Before Newton, people thought objects contained more or less of properties called gravity and levity, which made those objects heavy or light.  This, then, is an apple full of levity, I suppose.

Isaac Newton ended up the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, an extremely prestigious position. One of his professors had the job, but resigned so Newton could have it; he was that good. Three-hundred and ten years later, Stephen Hawking got the job*, which leads us back to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, in all its apple-y glory.

Apples floated in on wires. Performers rode in on gigantic apples, dragged in enormous apples on carts, tossed around beachball-sized apples, juggled apples. On cue, everyone in the stadium bit into their free apples for one thunderous communal crunch.

Apples everywhere…

And Professor Hawking told us via his synthetic voice that “There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being”. True, but some are less run-of-the-mill than others, and watching Paralympic athletes you can’t help but be majorly impressed. I’m going to miss the games. (I’ve already looked up a wheelchair basketball team near me and hope to go see them play.) But at the moment, I’m looking forward to tonight’s closing ceremony. Just in case there’s audience participation, I’ve got some apples standing by.

* Lucasian professors are required to retire at 67, so Professor Hawking left the Lucasian Chair in 2009, replaced by physicist Michael Green.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor are mine; others are screenshots from the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics



Filed under Arts, Culture, Food, History, Sports, Technology, Travel

36 responses to “Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

  1. Malcolm

    Amazing! You grow up in a country, live 8 decades, and think you know at least all the basic stuff, like the life of Isaac Newton. I’m taken with the thought that his mother left him back in the manor as a child so that no one could exclude him from it as an adult. And as for not being able to write your own name, I learned just this week from another BBC programme that until sometime in the 1400s it was actually illegal to use your name as your signature, Most people–even kings and noblemen–were illiterate, anyway, so the drill was: You made your mark (and some were pretty elaborate) and a lowly scribe wrote your name beside it. The past really is another place.

  2. Actually, my signature is still pretty much like that. I blame it on being left handed but my wife just says I’m a slob.

  3. Decades ago some British visitors asked me why we write our names instead of using “signatures”. They seemed to figure that if the name were legible, somebody could copy it, and they use furious scribbles based on their names as signatures. I dunno…

  4. I don’t think you ever need an excuse to write about Isaac Newton. This is lovely.

  5. I enjoyed reading this. Great post!

  6. Reblogged this on AshbourneVoice and commented:
    I love an article that begins with a small observation and tells a story around it. Fascinating

    • Many thanks for the repost! I like to do that start-with-a-little-thing-and-see-where-it-goes business, although it does often mean that I use up two topics for each post, which means I have to come up with more ideas. But the presentations of Britishness in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics will probably keep me in blog post ideas until the end of the year, if I’m lucky. Thanks for stopping by; I’ll go check out Ashbourne Voice —

  7. I thought the apple tree pictured was the original…?

    • That would be cool, although it would make the tree 400 years old; and I notice that the National Trust website calls it the original tree and says it is indeed 400 years old. But any number of books (for example, Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Newton) and National Trust staff at Woolsthorpe Manor will tell you that it blew down in a storm in the 1800s.

      BUT several grafts were made from the original tree, so the “same” tree is growing in several places. You can buy little keychains with wooden fobs from the wood of one of those grafted trees at the shop on the farm. I asked staff how they could be sure that this is the same wood, and was told that Isaac Newton had signed a piece of wood from the original tree, and authorities had tested the DNA to confirm which trees were descended from the original; the keychains I was buying were definitely from branches pruned from trees with the same DNA as the original.

      Hope that helps?

      • As I understand it, it did indeed blow over – and as you saw, it is quite damaged. But nevertheless, and somewhat remarkably, it’s still growing!

      • That’s truly remarkable! (If at odds with what staff at the place said…) A quick Google turns up an article in the Daily Mail about a 200-year-old tree that they claim is the oldest apple tree in the country. (But then again…I don’t know that I’d call the Daily Mail an authoritative source!) Maybe somebody should clue them in about the Woolsthorpe Manor tree!

    • Just rang the National Trust people at Woolsthorpe Manor and found that you’re absolutely right about the tree! (Tried to phone yesterday, but they weren’t open.)

      I’m going to amend the caption under the photo of the tree, and plan to post an update with the correction and more tree info, probably Friday.

      THANKS for pointing out my error!

  8. jumeirajames

    I loved the bog as much as I love arcane knowledge (and wisdom).

    Isaac Newton was a genius, and buried alongside Charles Darwin too – the men who shaped the world.

    • Thanks for that (and for the corollary below). By the way: Newton was on that list of 10 finalists for the Greatest Briton competition (if you didn’t see that, you could try this link: but I didn’t mention him in my post on the subject because I was concentrating on Brunel, and because I didn’t realize how many other people out there would be interested! Final results put Newton in 6th, just behind Shakespeare (and you mentioned Darwin, who’s just above Shakespeare).

      1. Churchill
      2. Brunel
      3. Diana
      4. Darwin
      5. Shakespeare
      6. Newton
      7. Lennon
      8. Elizabeth I
      9. Nelson
      10. Cromwell

      • jumeirajames

        I think I lost that reply – here I go again.

        Isambard Kingdom Brunel is my hero. A real engineer, not like us guys who outsource everything. He was a pacifist too – he said, ‘If we must have heroes and wars whereinto make them, there is no war so brilliant as a war with the wrong, no hero so fit to be sung, as he who has gained the bloodless VICTORY of truth and mercy’.

  9. jumeirajames

    Oh, ps. Do you know that if you hold an average sized apple a meter above your hand it will land there with a force of 1 Newton?

    Coincidence? LOL

  10. I really enjoyed reading this!

  11. An apple ( golden) caused the fall of Troy; again an apple ( the forbidden fruit in heaven) caused the fall of Adam- but it is the apple again fallen on the hands of Newton caused the greatest advancement for the entire species. Great post!

  12. Thanks for writing this – great post!

  13. Wonderful mix of erudition, simplicity and humour. These Olympian excavations are indeed a rich seam.

    • The producers of the pageantry did a lot of the work for me (including providing visual images, which always helps). They spent 4 years deciding what part of British culture they should show off, and I’m just piggybacking on their work. I ought not mention myself in the same sentence as Newton, but his remark about seeing farther because of standing on the shoulders of giants seems like it could slot in nicely here. (Or standing on giant apples — did you clock the SIZE of some of those beasts?)

  14. Wonderful stuff, mef. Smart and funny, as always!

  15. cool! really insightful! newton actually had a really interesting life. and i have to say i really fucking love those giant apples. aha

  16. This was a fascinating read, especially since it discussed two things that I know very little about: Isaac Newton and the Paralympics. It was very interesting how you connected the two and gave some relatively unknown background on Isaac Newton. I’ve never seen the Paralympics, and I certainly didn’t know they were going on right now. I will have to be sure to watch them next time!

  17. An interesting read, and clever how you connected the two subjects, which are both very inspiring.

  18. Wow! Very informative and i loved the way you weave worlds. Congrats on FP. Well deserved.

  19. Nice!
    Follow my blog also….

  20. Yosola Olorunshola

    This is amazing. Well done for getting freshly pressed! I guess his story ties into our conversation earlier – he didn’t have the best start in life but he managed to achieve incredible things.

  21. Pingback: Isaac Newton | Writing Contemplative life Essays

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