Did an Apple Really Fall on Newton’s Head? Did Newton Really Discover Gravity?

Did an Apple Really Fall on Newton’s Head? Did Newton Really Discover Gravity?

Could a falling apple have triggered one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time? Probably not, but it’s a cute story.

The tale of the apple landing on Isaac Newton’s head during an afternoon nap has been told for hundreds of years as the explanation for his discovery of the law of gravity. If only it were so simple. Newton enjoyed taking walks in his orchard and probably even indulged in a nap or two under an apple tree. But his understanding of gravity did not come to him as a flash of insight. Rather, it was the result of years of painstaking study.

The plague of 1665 probably had more to do with Newton’s intellectual feat than a round, red fruit. Newton was a 23 year old student at Cambridge when the plague gripped England. As a result, the University closed and students were sent back to their homes in the countryside. Newton used this time to devote himself to his private studies, and in later years, he would refer to this period as the most productive of his life. He spent days working nonstop on computations and nights observing and measuring the skies. These calculations provided the seeds for an idea that would take years of covert and obsessive work to formulate, his Theory of Universal Gravitation.

Accounts of the apple story began appearing after Newton’s death in 1727, probably written by the French philosopher Voltaire, who was famous for his wit but not his accuracy. He reported having heard the story about the Apple from one of Newton’s relatives, but there is no sound evidence to support that claim.

The falling apple will always be associated with Newton’s great discovery. Many universities claim to own trees grown from grafts of trees from Newton’s orchard, perhaps to remind overworked students that the theory of gravity was no piece of pie but, rather, the fruit of hard labor.

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