"To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me” ~ Sir Isaac Newton
Youngest son Alan texted me this week, to be sure and remind people when writing or talking about history that it is “a historic” and not “an historic.” Apparently, pet peeves of the incorrect usage of “a” and “an” are passed on genetically.
Anyway, history and historic events are chock full of quaint tales of famous figures doing something extraordinary, that most mortal men could never do.
Remember the grade school tale of a young George Washington, a strapping man of height and stature, throwing a silver dollar across the mile-wide Potomac River?
Of course, it at once brings a young student the image of an extraordinary feat of considerable physical prowess.
In fact, as re-told by a relative, young George probably threw a piece of slate about the size of a dollar across the not-nearly-as-wide Rappahannock River near the family’s Fredericksburg, Va., homestead. And, moralistically, that he chopped down a cherry tree and could not tell a lie about his act.
Great men of history, it must have been thought over the millennia, are required to have accompanying great tales to make them seem far removed from the average man or woman.
So it was with the famous Sir Isaac Newton, who, as legend told, was sitting beneath an apple tree when a piece of the red fruit fell onto his head, giving him one of history’s great scientific insights into the laws of gravity.
Seems a fanciful tale all right, ripe (pun intended) for a fictitious account of this famous ah-ha moment.
And yet, this tale of a brilliant physicist and mathematician has more than a little truth to it.
As told in what would be considered Newton’s biography, author and archaeologist William Stucky wrote: “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees ... he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occassion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself ...”
Born on Christmas Day 1642 in northern England’s Lincolnshire, Newton was a lad of 12 when his mother tried to turn him into a farmer, at which he failed miserably because he found it monotonous.
Fortunately for the rest of us, it is well and good he gave up the agrarian avocation, for he was one of the brilliant minds of his age — near the conclusion of the Scientific Revolution. Educated at Cambridge and Trinity College, he would go on to become a household name in scientific history.
In a caprice of fate, the Great Plague that roiled England and Europe came to Cambridge in 1667 during his time there, forcing the great university to close. Newton returned to his home for private study, and during an 18-month hiatus, conceived the method of infinitesimal calculus, set out the foundation for his theory of light and color and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, leading to his publishing of the famous “Principia” in 1687.
And, as history tells us, it was during the Black Death that Newton is supposed to have been sitting beneath an apple tree, observed the falling fruit, began to contemplate just “why” the apple fell straight to earth, and came up with the seeds of Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
Simply, it states that any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses, and is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
Now, I’m a journalist and only have a vague idea of what he meant here. But it sounds pretty deep to me, and apparently, to a whole lot of others over the centuries that can decipher E=mc2.
So, the Great Plague and an apple tree helped give us one of the great minds and scientific principles in history.
I can’t speak for the rest of you, but if I’m sitting beneath an apple tree, and a heavy red pome falls to earth and bonks me on my head, I’m going to shout a few choice words.
And then — I cannot tell a lie — I might just chop down that apple tree in a fit of non-scientific anger.
But, that is a tale for another day.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking