In a footnote to a previous post I worried that in a post on Columbus and the flat earth myth Valerie Strauss had preferred the opinions of a mathematician over the expertise of a historian. And in fact, Strauss did prefer the dilettante to the expert. She rejected the historian’s conclusions, which were based in training, evidence, and experience, and relied instead on the opinions of a non-expert, which ignored both evidence and experts.
Perhaps because she is awed by mathematics or assumes scientists are smarter than everybody else, Strauss aped the mathematician Robert Osserman’s fantasy about people in the early middle ages believing in a flat earth. Osserman was an accomplished mathematician at Stanford. He was also celebrated for bringing “math to a broad audience.” Turns out, he also happens to have been a flat earther.
For reasons that make little sense, Osserman repeats a particular version of the flat earth myth in his Poetry of the Universe. Chapter 2, “Encompassing the Earth,” opens with a rejection of the idea that Columbus proved the earth was round. Osserman even calls out this myth, saying
One of the enduring myths of the Western world is that in order to gain support for his expeditions, Christopher Columbus had to first overcome a pervasive belief that the earth was flat rather than round …
So far, so good. But then Osserman succumbs to the fantasy,
The myth undoubtedly stems in part from a compression of the historical past, conflating the early Middle Ages, when a belief in a flat earth was indeed widespread in Europe, with the late Middle Ages…
No, the myth doesn’t stem from a “compression of the historical past” but rather a willful rejection of the historical past, a willful rejection of historical fact, a willful rejection of evidence, and a profound intellectual laziness validated by arrogance and hubris. I am confident that Osserman had multiple colleagues at Stanford who could have explained to him how his beliefs were wrong, were myths. All he had to do was dial an extension or walk across campus and ask them. But he chose not to. He chose, instead, to traffic in a myth, to spread misinformation, and to do so with the authority of being a “mathematician.”
That authority was persuasive. It dazzled Strauss and convinced her to reject the expertise of the historian in favor of the unfounded beliefs of the mathematician. Her preference for the mathematician has, in turn, disseminated the myth yet further, now robed in the authority of a Washington Post column that claims to be grounded in research and to be a resource for teachers and parents. Unfortunately, Strauss has mislead the teachers, parents “(and everyone else)” who reads her column.
We have an apple tree on the Case Western Reserve University campus grown from a twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity 350 years ago.
We’d love for Mr. Irving to come see our tree and look at what we’re doing. Decide for himself if we’re deluded.
I cannot understand how this comment about Newton’s apple tree adds anything to their op-ed. Their comment, however, takes scientific relics to a new level.
There is no shortage of Newtonian apple trees. Numerous colleges and universities claim to have an apple tree descended from the “original apple tree grown in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor:” Cambridge University Botanic Garden; University of Nebraska; William & Mary; The University of York; MIT; etc. Most of these trees are growing in courtyards or gardens associated with physics and astronomy departments, not history departments. Why, I wonder, do so many science departments want to have and want to celebrate their Newtonian apple trees? I can’t help but see these trees as quasi-secular relics, i.e., as markers of prestige and physical ties to saint-like figures, as means of tapping into archetypal geniuses. As physical artifacts, these relics seem to reinforce hagiographic discovery narratives.
The claim to have “an apple tree … from a twig of the actual apple orchard” seems, however, to take the quasi-secular relic a step further. Somehow the spatial proximity is sufficient and important—their tree descends from a tree in the “actual orchard.” Did some occult force emanate from “the original tree” and permeate the entire orchard? How far does the influence from Newton’s original apple tree extend? To all of Woolsthorpe? To all of England? And why emphasize the “actual apple orchard”? As opposed to what, the virtual apple orchard? I just don’t get it.
In this case, the twig underscores the myth that Newton was a genius who, in a flash of brilliance, understood the theory of gravity. In this case, the twig is a metonym for a discovery narrative. Although the basic contours of that narrative are familiar, less well known is the process by which that story was established.
Around 1727 a handful of sources refer to Newton and his experience with an apple. Robert Greene reported a version in his The Principles of the Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces…, claiming to have heard it from Martin Folkes. John Conduitt recorded a version in his draft of a “Memoir of Newton:”
…in the year 1665 when he retired to his own estate on account of the Plague he first discovered first thought of his system of gravity wch he fell into hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree a heavy body fall to the ground…
Conduitt repeated this claim in other drafts of his work.
About the same time we find the earliest printed version of the story, which seems to be in Voltaire’s An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (London, 1727). He claims: “And thus in our days Sir Isaak Newton walkign in his Gardens had the first Thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an Apple falling from a Tree.” Six years later Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733), where he gives us more context for the story:
But being retir’d in 1666, upon Account of the Plague, to a Solitude near Cambridge: as he [Newton] was walking one Day in his Garden, as saw some Fruits fall from a Tree, he fell into a profound Meditation on that Gravity….”
Voltaire claims to have heard the story from Catherine Barton, John Conduitt’s wife. And Henry Pemberton gestured to the anecdote in his A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728), though he omits any reference to the apple, mentioning only that Newton “sat alone in his garden.”
It is unclear how many independent sources there are for these early accounts. Greene refers to Martin Folkes. Conduitt doesn’t cite any source, though he might have heard it directly from Newton—the Conduitts were living with Newton at the end of his life. Pemberton doesn’t cite any source. Voltaire refers to Barton, who probably learned it from Conduitt. So maybe two independent sources, Folkes and Conduitt.
Apparently around the same time William Stukeley heard the story directly from Newton, or so he claims. In his manuscript notes “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” (1752) Stukeley claims that Newton had related the incident to him after dinner one evening in 1726:
After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he [Newton], & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: “Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. Therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. If matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.” That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe….
We might pause and wonder about this story. There is no record of the story for six decades and then, just before Newton dies, it appears in manuscript and print from people who could have heard it from Newton. Newton was at this time an 83- or 84-year-old man recalling events that happened perhaps as many as 60 years earlier. We certainly have reason to be skeptical of his account. 83-year-old men tend not to recall events accurately, and their narratives tend to toward exaggeration and teleology. Perhaps Newton was the exception—perfect, infallible memory and absolute fidelity to events—though given his experiments with mercury and other chemicals, we would be forgiven for questioning his memory. But we don’t and can’t know that he was. While we can’t confirm the story, its veracity is not its most important aspect.
We can confirm, however, that whatever brilliant insight the falling apple produced in 1666, it had no immediate discernible impact on his work. Two decades elapsed between the apple’s fall and Newton’s Principia mathematica, during which time he devoted considerable attention to alchemy and optics, as well as astronomy. Perhaps he fiddled with the mathematics for two decades. Perhaps he slowly through trial and error worked out the details, struggling to solve new difficulties as he worked to assemble the entire work, slowly working his way toward the system we encounter today in the Principia mathematica. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, he sat down in some philosopher’s-stone fueled rampage and wrote down the entire Principia mathematica in one frenetic weekend of brilliance and productivity, and then sat on it for two decades. We don’t really know.
But highlighting the apple tree story—especially when the best you can say is that your tree descends from a “twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity”—effaces the arduous work, the mistakes and dead ends, the inchoate solutions, the revisions, and the tangible and intangible contributions other people made to bring the Principia mathematica to fruition.
While I’m not in Cleveland, I invite Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse to talk to me. I’d be happy to explain historical expertise and history to them. I think we can find a great deal of common ground—and not just because we all struggle to refute the flat earth myth.