The “gravity tree” that inspired Isaac Newton to formulate his theory of gravity has survived for four centuries and is still alive.
Trees are beings full of wisdom that strangely help us find calm, but among all of them, there is one famous for having helped to unravel the mysteries of physics. Yes, we are talking about the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton to postulate his theory of gravitational attraction and has gone down in history as an iconic element in Newton’s ideas. In case you’re wondering, the tree is still alive and now nearly four centuries old.
It is twisted and gnarled but still survives in front of the Newton family’s Woolsthorpe Manor farm in Lincolnshire, England. It’s impressive to think that the tree lived at the same time as the smartest person in history, according to science. But it also helped him to formulate the most important theory of his time and with which scientists could finally understand more about the behavior of the planet’s physics.
Isolation turned into a genius
In 1665, England was going through a difficult time, a pandemic had ravaged Europe and put everyone in isolation. Isaac Newton was no exception. He fled from Cambridge University to take refuge in the family farm Woolsthorpe Manor, some 60 kilometers northeast of Cambridge.
Settling at home, he built a small office with bookshelves and created a kind of scientific diary, a blank notebook with his ideas and calculations, which he called his “Waste Book.” There he deposited everything that came to his mind thanks to the tranquility of isolation and the distance from the demands of university curricula.
It was here that the famous story of the apple was born, which although idyllic and highly poetic, is not entirely true. Newton indeed looked at the apple tree, and from it came the idea of the falling apple, but it is not true that it fell on his head, and this was the reason why he suddenly thought of the pull of gravity.
The “Gravity Tree”
With his Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, published in 1687, Newton changed forever the way classical mechanics were understood. There he laid the most important foundations of physics, including the force of gravity. And once his story of the apple became popular, the tree became just as famous.
There is a version spread by the King’s School in Grantham, which is located north of Woolsthorpe Manor, which says that the headmaster of the school had the apple tree uprooted and planted in his garden. However, Woolsthorpe, now run as a museum, maintains that the old specimen, which can still be seen in the museum, is the correct one. The museum’s version is backed up by several historical sketches showing that there was always an apple tree where the current “gravity tree” stands.
Historical records in turn suggest that the famous apple tree that inspired Newton’s theory of gravity was planted in 1650, so it would still be very young when the physicist saw an apple fall from its branches. The species of the “gravity tree” is one known as “Kent’s Flower,” which produces a soft, mealy variety of apples.
Of course, surviving almost four centuries has not been easy, in 1820 the tree fell due to a strong storm, but the caretakers of the place took care of rooting it again. Now, Newton’s iconic apple tree companion is still standing and can be visited in the museum. It is the living thing that continues to be a direct link to Sir Isaac Newton’s legacy.
Its seeds are very valuable, so much so that they were sent into space aboard the International Space Station by the ESA and have also been successfully reproduced in different parts of the world. Now the most iconic apple tree in history has several descendants that live in different important scientific centers around the world, as a banner of Newton’s invaluable contributions to science.
Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera