Today, let's ask about Newton and his apple. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
For a long time I thought
the story of Newton and the apple was just another
fable. I thought it was a made-up story, like
Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It is
Cambridge University closed down in the Summer of
1665 when the plague broke out. Newton, a student
there, went home to Lincolnshire. He stayed home
for two years while the disease ran its course in
the area around London.
The 23-year-old Newton spent that time studying and
laying the foundations for his greatest work, the
Principia. One day he sat thinking in
his garden, when an apple fell. Then he realized.
The direction the apple fell, along with every
other object on this round earth, was always toward
It wasn't just that the apple fell, but that it
tried to go to Earth's center. That was Newton's
Eureka Moment. He realized that Earth had drawn the
apple to it. He realized that every object in the
universe draws every other object -- probably in
proportion to its mass.
Newton didn't publish his Principia
until 20 years later. But he formulated the Law of
Universal Gravitation there in his Lincolnshire
garden. He showed us that what was true of apples
and the earth was true of planets and moons as
Now enter a surprising character. The person who
popularized the apple story was none other than
Voltaire. The French Voltaire sided with Newton in
Newton's bitter fights with Leibnitz. Voltaire's
brilliant mistress, The Marquise du Châtelet,
created the first French translation of the
Principia while Voltaire was writing
Candide. In Candide
Voltaire ridiculed Leibnitz. The character Dr.
Pangloss, who went about insisting that we live in
the "best of all possible worlds," was Voltaire's
version of Leibnitz.
We might chalk Voltaire's apple story up to
partisan license. But the story has good
corroboration. Newton told it to close friends, who
also recorded it for us.
If you've ever done anything creative, you'll
recognize the plausibility of the apple story.
You'll remember your own moment when some small and
commonplace event revealed a great truth to you.
That's the way creativity works. It's almost always
the recognition of a great truth out of context.
Why did I so mistrust the apple story when I first
heard it? No doubt it was simply too pat. For that
apple of knowledge in Newton's garden of Eden
changed our science -- and it changed our very
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Roberts, R.M., Serendipity: Accidental
Discoveries in Science. New York: John Wiley
& Sons, Inc., 1989, Chapter 4.
Note added, August 13, 2020: Reader Sadler Barnhardt
writes to point out a chronological error in this text (from 1991).
It turns out that Voltaire probably expressed his dislike of Newton's opponent, Leibnitz, in Candide
after du Chatelet's death in 1749. Candide was not published until 1759.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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