The history of science, eureka! moments, and the apple that (maybe) fell on Newton’s head

Photo Credit: beautifulcataya via Flickr

Really this time, I mean it: I will post more often.  I’m running out of excuses, since my comps exams ended two weeks ago.  Since then I’ve been busy with welcome week events at the university, but I’m also in a bit of a haze.  What does one do with themselves after comps?

One teaches!  As part of my PhD work (and funding package) I am a teaching assistant at the university, meaning I facilitate tutorials in a course that would otherwise be a string of lectures.  I don’t talk ‘at’ the students, but we have discussions and I mark their work.  (One day I’ll post about pedagogy and why I think grades should be abolished, but not today.)

This term I’m teaching a course on the history of science and technology.  It’s one I’ve taught before, which makes it a smidge easier since I’m familiar with the readings and I’ve seen which topics crashed and burned and which inspired reflection.  I also enjoy the material because it’s a social history of science and technology.  In other words, the point is to explain how and why we build what we build and we know what we know, rather than a simple catalogue of dates/times/facts/innovations.

To debunk the idea of the ‘eureka moment’ is one major goal of the course.  In the first lecture of the term the professor suggested that gravity was not suddenly discovered when an apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, but was borne of much longer contexts, including previous knowledge building but also a social environment that made Newton’s ideas credible.  After giving this brief explanation he turned to me and asked whether I knew what type of apple it was.  I didn’t.

But that got me thinking.  What kind of apple (supposedly) fell on Newton’s head?  Being an environmental and agricultural historian, these mundane sorts of questions interest me.  Turns out it was a Flower of Kent apple (pictured above), a variety that was first cultivated in France but also happened to be growing at Woolesthorpe Manor (Newton’s residence) in the 17th century.  It is a small, green, tart cooking apple that is, from the sounds of it, entirely underwhelming given its prominence in the History of Important White Dudes and Science.

But here’s the thing.  Even if Newton did not have a ‘eureka’ moment–even if the apple didn’t fall on his head at all–the story has real, material ramifications.  The Flower of Kent apple could arguably have disappeared if it weren’t for that story passed down through generations.  Like the potato and numerous other crops, apple biodiversity just isn’t what it used to be.  (See your local supermarket.)  Farmer’s markets often have a slightly better range of options, but the truth is these are all a mere fraction of the radical diversity that used to exist in the world of apples.  For all we know, the Flower of Kent’s unremarkable qualities (unremarkable to us, that is) were probably going to relegate it to the ecological dustbin so we could munch on apples that are easier to grow, spray, and ship.

Nowadays, however, the Flower of Kent apples do better than even those varieties that are saved from extinction in the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Cornell University.  Indeed, the Flower of Kent grows at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, at York University in Toronto, at Woolesthorpe Manor (though the infamous tree is no longer there), and has even accompanied the Space Shuttle Atlantis into orbit.  (More precisely, they sent up a piece of the wood from the tree Newton sat beneath, a tree that died in the 19th century but was made into various artifacts thereafter, including a ruler.)

In other words, Sir Isaac Newton may not have discovered gravity in that moment beneath the Flower of Kent tree, but the story altered, however minutely, the ecological arrangements of today.  And biodiversity is good, even if we don’t see an immediate use for the Flower of Kent.  

(You can see a little more information on this apple and its story here and here.)

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Filed under Academia, Food and Cooking, History, On Agriculture & the Environment

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