Update on Newton’s Apple Tree

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…

The title card from the section of the Paralympics opening ceremony called “Gravity”

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.)

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, the Enlightenment brains behind the Declaration of Independence

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.

Sir Isaac Newton

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.

Pity the other trees in the Woolsthorpe Manor orchard. Newton might even have seen apples fall from this tree from time to time, but not on the one crucial occasion.

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?

Ten years ago, Newton’s apple tree and 49 others were designated Great British Trees in honor of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

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.)

Key fobs made from branches pruned from Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree, on sale in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor.

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.

The London premises of the Royal Society

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.)

Piers Sellers, Anglo-American astronaut, took a fragment of wood from Newton’s apple tree on a space shuttle flight.

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).

A descendant of Newton’s apple tree growing in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, although the photographer, rather unusually, seems to have been more interested in the trunk than in the leaves

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.

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9 Comments

Filed under Culture, Technology, Travel

9 responses to “Update on Newton’s Apple Tree

  1. Malcolm

    When I was studying physics at school, back in the 1940s, we were assured that Newton’s story about the apple tree was an invention designed to fend off those who pestered him with “What ever made you think of it, Sir Isaac?” questions … his way of saying “isn’t it just so bleeding obvious?” as it were. If that is indeed so, then all this scurrying about to propagate that particular apple tree is a satire of Swiftian dimensions. (And how Sir Isaac must be smiling from … wherever he may be!)

    • Yeah — I ran across authors saying the same thing in writing the previous post. Apparently Newton told or wrote the story in four separate places, substantially the same, so there’s little doubt that he did indeed tell it; whether it was true at all–well, I believe it’s rather nice to think so.

      Of course, nobody with any smarts is saying, as you read a lot of rather less-rigorous places, that he saw the apple fall and immediately knew everything there was to know about gravity; there was a lot of math between cup and lip.

      It’s rather like the stories about one my ancestors that I read in a master’s thesis somebody wrote years ago; some of it didn’t sound like the person at all. Alas, my parents’ generation is all gone now, but I asked an uncle about it a few years ago, and he said the author got a lot of his information from an aunt of mine who was known to be “mischievous” about such things. So much for recorded history!

      • Candida

        That’s why all those blue “citation needed” pepperings on wikipedia are so important!
        I think Newton did pretty well with the apple story, true or not, if what he wanted was a way to fix an idea in the minds of the general population. These days he might use a helicopter, a mountaintop, lots of hair product and the word “amaaazing” in a strong Mancunian accent. (For the non-UK readers, search for Professor Brian Cox.)
        I had no idea the tree was in so many places, that’s rather touching. Of course any Beauty of Bath, since it’s always a grafted tree, is the same clone as Newton’s tree, but there’s something different psychologically, even if not biologically, about it coming from that specimen.

      • Professor Brian Cox’s popularity leaves me wondering what I’m missing. His voice is wimpy; he sounds completely wet. He could make anything amazing sound boring. And people talk about how handsome he is, when he looks okay, but nothing special; he looks like any other guy you might see on the bus to the university. Julie Walters in an interview a while back called him “dishy”. What? No offense to Prof Cox–I don’t judge scientists by what they look like and he looks perfectly presentable, if nothing special. But his manner of speaking–! As if he doesn’t have the energy to get to the end of what he’s saying. Bleah.

      • Is Beauty of Bath another name for Flower of Kent? Have I got my wires crossed?

      • Speaking of the ubiquitous Prof Cox, I went to Bright Club last night–they produce stand-up comedy shows featuring scientists and researchers who use stand-up to explain to the audience what it is that they do. I was there to support a friend of mine who was performing for the first time, but the big name of the evening was Jim Al-Khalili, a theoretical physicist who has done a fair bit of TV and radio presenting, too, but where some other performers left the stage with some mention of their names (you know the sort of thing: “You’ve been great! I’ve been John Doe!”), he left saying “I’m not Brian Cox”! Very funny in context —

  2. Oooh Oooh! Thanks for the mention! 😀

  3. You mentioned the grafted apple tree in Cambridge. In the background is Trinity College, and the window is the room where Newton studied! 😀

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