A special welcome to new subscribers who came here after seeing the previous post on Freshly Pressed, WordPress’s showcase of selected blog posts. I was grateful that they included my apple-y article, and wonder whether, if that has been freshly pressed, we’ll get apple juice, and eventually cider…
Turns out that the Paralympic opening ceremony was titled “Enlightenment”. Who knew? The section called “Gravity” used a title card (see illustration) , but the name of the production as a whole was never shown or announced. (One of the presenters said something about enlightenment being a theme of the evening and of Professor Hawking’s life; that was about it.)
So what I saw (see previous post) as a tribute to the scientific revolution was really a tribute to enlightenment in many forms, including the capital-E Enlightenment of which Newton was a part—an intellectual revolution in which people turned to reasoning and science to determine how society should work. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson produced the Declaration of Independence as part of the politics of that Enlightenment, although today sometimes it seems we’re living, to go by current US politics at least, in the Endarkenment.
Newton dedicated himself to truth, as a good Enlightenment scientist would, quoting in his notebook a sentiment that goes back to Aristotle that loosely translates as “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend”, meaning he would choose truth over whatever an authority told him. (A loose translation is good enough, not least because Newton wrote it in Latin when Aristotle’s original was in Greek—go figure.)
I would be doing Newton a poor service, then, if I didn’t correct mistakes when they come to light. So, many thanks to WordPress blogger 3arn0wl who suggested that the tree I said was a descendant of Isaac Newton’s original was in fact the original tree itself, still growing after more than 400 years, which turns out to be true, or at least, almost certainly true.
I spoke with Ann Moynihan, National Trust Support Officer for Woolsthorpe Manor, to get the true story, and found her a gold mine of information. The celebrated tree, the most famous apple tree since the Garden of Eden, was identified by about 1779 as the one from which Newton said he saw the apple fall; that’s less than 65 years after he died. So while we don’t have firm proof, it’s very likely to be the right tree; dendrochronology (tree ring measurements) show that the tree is over 400 years old; and we’re not likely to get any closer to the truth than that. It’s possible that by 1779(ish) folklore could have pushed in already and marked the wrong tree as the hallowed one, but why, as William of Ockham might have said, complicate the story?
The tree being so famous, when it blew over in a storm in 1810 the press got the story and ran with it, lamenting the death of the tree in quantities of ink—but the tree wasn’t dead. People rushed to make a profit on boxes and even chairs made of the dead branches, but the remnants of the tree sent up new shoots; there was life in the old fruit yet.
In fact, Ann suggested that the tree regenerated a la Dr Who. (I’ll have to explain for those who haven’t encountered Dr Who, but with apologies to Ann, because a joke is never funny if you have to explain it; in short, Dr Who is a character in a science fiction television show who, whenever the actor playing the character quits but producers want to keep the show going, is said to have “regenerated”, and come back to life looking like the new actor who will take the character on.)
Ann wasn’t familiar with the story I heard from the staff member in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor, about the tree having been tested against the DNA of a piece of wood signed by Newton himself, but said that the Royal Society has a piece of wood from the same tree—and here, Americans and other non-British readers might want a word about the RS, which is proud to claim Newton as a former member.
Officially, it’s the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the American equivalent would be the US National Academy of Sciences, but the RS is 200 years older than the USNAS. It’s a nonprofit body of eminent scientists who support excellence in science, giving grants for research and education projects and advising the government on scientific issues. The RS has recently made a picture database available on the internet; you can try looking up “Newton apple tree” (see Featured Links), or better yet, read the RS’s blog about the pictures of Newton’s apple tree in their collection (click here).
And in its collections of amazing items from the history of science, the Royal Society has a piece of the original apple tree, a piece that’s been up in the space shuttle. The RS lent the 4-inch chunk to British astronaut Piers Sellers who took it up in 2010, along with a picture of Sir Isaac Newton, for what was meant to be the final voyage of the Atlantis shuttle. (The Atlantis got a reprieve and kept flying, eventually carrying out the last shuttle mission when the program closed down in 2011.)
If you aren’t a space shuttle astronaut or a Fellow of the Royal Society, and you can’t get to Lincolnshire to visit the tree yourself, you still might be closer to the tree that you might suppose; shoots from Newton’s tree have been sent all over the world, grafted onto different rootstock, and produced genetically identical trees. In Britain, the tree grows in Cambridge at Trinity College and in the University’s Botanic Garden; elsewhere in the UK they have the ‘same’ tree at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Oxford, the Institute of Physics in York, and—though I haven’t confirmed this one—Kew Gardens in Kew, in London. With pointers from Ann and some serious Googling, I’ve found more instances of Newton’s tree in the US (MIT), Korea (the Korean Research Institute for Standards and Science, in Daejeon), Australia (Monash University), and China (at Nanjing University and at TianJin University).
I feel very much more enlightened now, on the subject of Newton’s tree, which is presumably not one of the enlightenments the producers of the Paralympic opening ceremony had in mind, but that’s okay; I took their point about seeing disabled people in a new light as well. After watching Olympic athletes show how far you can push the human body to do amazing things, I thought I must have seen the absolute limit of achievement in sports, but the Paralympics showed me how wrong I was; like the best in any field of endeavor from sports to science, the Paralympians push the boundaries even farther.
Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor orchard are mine, the “Gravity” title card is a screen shot from the Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics, and all other photos are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.