Newton’s Apple Tree and Einstein’s Begonias

According to the story that so many were taught in elementary school, in 1666 at Woolsthorpe Manor an apple fell from a tree right onto the head of Sir Isaac Newton. Rather than giving the physicist the gift of a concussion as one might expect, the story goes that it created a ‘eureka!’ moment and inspired the famous universal law of gravity. Now, while it’s highly unlikely that Newton was actually hit upside the head by an inspirational apple, it is actually true that a specific apple tree did provide the impetus for the idea.

The proof comes from an anecdote included in “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life” by William Stukeley, written in 1752. The story Stukeley records was heard firsthand from the man himself. Already in a contemplative mood (as Newton constantly was, I’d imagine), he observed an apple fall from a tree and mused, “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground?” From there, the idea grew into gravity as a universal force. After all, to get remarkable insight out of a scientist, all you really need to do is ask them a question they don’t know the answer to; the desire to understand will take over from there.

Scan of the page from “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life” that details the momentous apple’s descent

Whether rightly or wrongly, Newton’s apple tree has definitely cemented its place in the folklore and history of science. For some non-scientists it’s even true to say that the apple tree is the first thing they think of when they hear his name, with things such as gravitation and inertia coming in as an afterthought! For that reason, many geeky-minded people find it pretty cool to be in the famous tree’s presence, despite it just being any old Flower of Kent apple tree. A piece of the tree was even taken up in the Space Shuttle Atlantis, defying the gravitational force it helped to make famous, just for the sake of it being Newton’s tree.

The good news is you don’t need to go to England to stand in its presence, so long as you’re okay with having a descendent of the famous tree rather than the original.  Graftings from Newton’s apple tree have been planted the world over, typically at college campuses as gifts from Mathematics or Physics departments or outside of physics labs to remind the scientists within that sometimes inspiration comes when you least expect it. From the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to MIT to the University of Tokyo, having an apple tree descended from Newton is a rather nice feather in a campus’ cap. If you’re only interested in the original, you’re out of luck: the tree that Newton observed was long ago used for furniture, but not before graftings from it were taken for future trees, including one planted right where the original stood.

A descendant of Newton’s apple tree at the University of Tokyo

So where’s William and Mary’s apple tree? Not here yet, but it’s on its way. A cutting will be gifted to the College from MIT and planted near Small Hall, as is only appropriate. Fun fact: the reason this request was accepted was due to the fact that the founder and first president of MIT, William Barton Rogers, was a W&M graduate! His father even taught mathematics and natural philosophy at the College.

W&M alumni are everywhere, doing impressive things to shape American history… particularly going off and founding other universities, it’d seem!

While Newton’s apple tree is far more iconic, it isn’t the only plant touched by a famous physicist still in circulation to this day. Begonias didn’t help inspire Albert Einstein, or at least there isn’t any documented proof of it, but he did cultivate them while living in Princeton, New Jersey. Cuttings from the begonias raised by Einstein had been given as gifts before, mainly to physics or mathematics faculty at Princeton University or at the Institute for Advanced Study, but now they are also being circulated among a group residing in Princeton outside of the faculty. One such pair of recipients would be my grandparents, recent Friends of the Institute for Advanced Studies and longtime residences of Princeton, New Jersey.

A descendant of Einstein’s begonias as photographed and cared for by my grandparents, Richard and Vicky Bergman

Now, in light of all this, I wouldn’t say having at least one significant connection to a plant or tree of some sort is a requirement to be a brilliant physicist… but it is pretty cool to be able to stand under the shade of an apple tree or admire the leaves of a begonia and know that it was touched by a physicist whose work forms cornerstones of how we see and study the world. They serve as physical reminders that, no matter how fantastical or legendary they may seem to us now, the prominent figures of science took time out for seemingly insignificant observations and self-satisfying pursuits just the same as us.

So, next time you’re in a contemplative mood or just feel like unwinding with some gardening, why not seek out a nice tree to rest under or some begonias to replant? Who knows what ideas might steal into your head!