Apple's Newton goes online

An 18th century report of a conversation with the alchemist Sir Isaac Newton in which he first recounted the Apple falling from a tree story has gone online for the first time.

The fragile paper explains how a falling piece of Granny Smith or whatever helped Isaac Newton stop thinking about turning lead into gold, or how the Light of God divided itself, and start thinking about more weighty matters.

The document is owned by the Royal Society, which was formed as an actual attempt to form a scientific society similar to the magical Rosicrucians. These days they don’t believe in that sort of stuff, but Newton did until the day he died.  

Royal Society librarian Keith Moore said the apple story explains how modern science works, and contains an implicit reference to the solar system and even an allusion to the Bible.

When Newton describes the process of observing a falling apple and guessing at the principle behind it “he’s talking about the scientific method,” Moore said.

The incident occurred in the mid-1660s, when Newton retreated to his family home in northern England after an outbreak of the plague closed the University of Cambridge.

The Royal Society’s manuscript was penned by Newton’s contemporary William Stukeley who said that on a spring afternoon in 1726 the famous scientist told him the yarn over tea and biscuits  “under the shade of some apple trees.”

Stukeley said that Newton told him that it was exactly the same situation, as when he worked out the idea of gravity.

“It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself … Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earth’s centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter.”

Stukeley’s account joins the long-lost notes of Newton’s 17th-century scientific rival Robert Hooke on the Royal Society’s Web site here.