In my besteller, the Myths of Innovation, I spend a chapter exploring the failings of the story, and others like it, and how misused these tales often are.
But I have doubts this event ever took place.
The primary evidence for the event is in a book The Royal Society posted titled Memoirs of Isaac Newton, even though it was written by his friend William Stukeley.
Here are the facts:
- Stukeley interviewed Newton in 1726. Newton died in 1727.
- Stukeley published his “Memoirs of Newton’ in 1752 at earliest. Meaning Newton never saw the book.
- The story comes from a ‘biographer’ (Stukeley), writing about Newton.
- Biographers, certainly in 1720, are not objective reporters running around checking facts. They are often fans of their subjects, as Stukeley was of Newton.
- At the time they talked they were sitting under apple trees.
- The ‘event’ Newton supposedly told Stukeley, happened 60 years earlier.
- There are few other first person source anywhere, in Newton’s journals or other biographies, of ‘the event’. (Please comment if I’m wrong).
In James Glieck’s excellent biography, Isaac Newton, he strongly suggests Newton offered the story as an metaphoric anecdote, as way to express his curiosity about the world, rather than as a literal tale about specific singular moment that redefined his view of things.
(for Americans: the bit about getting hit on the head was added much later, as often happens with myths. And it appeared in Schoolhouse rock).
Now my point here is not to say epiphanies never happen. Most creative people have them now and then, and I do too – but I argue they are overrated. They do not eliminate the hard work and risk required to manifest the idea in the world. Newton worked for a decade to complete his theory on gravity that he became famous for. I’m also not questioning Newton’s genius – he was one. But reasonable doubt about this legend is warranted given the thin evidence we have.
Frankly I don’t trust Stukeley. He was apparently a good friend of Newton’s. Just as I wouldn’t trust a biographer/friend interviewing someone famous late in their life, who somehow manages to tell only them a story about something that happened decades ago, that the famous person never mentioned in any of their own extensive journals and writings or interviews with other people. I can guess Stukeley wanted Newton to look good. He also wanted his book to be read (though the publishing history of the memoir is unclear). And in the spirit of those two things some exaggeration of facts and conversion of abstract anecdotes into real specific events would not be surprising.
In an article at The Independent, one of the few pieces this week to do research at all, offers this report from an expert at the Royal Society, which owns the manuscript:
“Newton cleverly honed this anecdote over time,” said Keith Moore, head of archives at the Royal Society. “The story was certainly true, but let’s say it got better with the telling.” The story of the apple fit the idea of an Earth-shaped object being attracted to the Earth. It also had a resonance with the Biblical account of the tree of knowledge (only the word fruit is used in Genesis, but Western imagery has made the apple icon in the tale), and Newton was known to have extreme religious views, Mr Moore said.
I’m surprised that in the history of science so few people have raised any questions at all.
I’d love to see the web help me round out the facts, find experts and other familiar with the sources. Spread the word.