Newton’s Apple

Yesterday I met my second year science and technology in world history survey course for the first time. It’s a group of 160 students that will meet three times a week through the semester for lectures. In addition, there will be an hour of tutorial per week. This is especially exciting for a few reasons. First, the course draws students from across campus, which means these tutorials are hopping with interdisciplinary discussion. Second, for the first time the tutorials will all be run by my own graduate students. While I have had some exceptional teaching assistants in the past, there’s something special about working with my own students. To wit: in my introductory lecture I challenged the notion of “Eureka” moments in science or the idea that science occurs in isolation—at a remove from its social context. And in so doing pooh-poohed the significance of Newton’s apple as being the singular defining moment of his work on gravity (largely in jest), and even went so far as to question whether the type of apple (which I didn’t know) played some kind of role. I received from one of my teaching assistants the following:

The variety of apple that supposedly fell on Newton’s head is called ‘Flower of Kent,’ a small green cooking apple that originated in France.  The tree is now cordoned off at Woolsthorpe Manor, since the volume of visitors was destroying its root system.  (However, it’s not the original tree, but one that was propagated in its place after it died in the 19th century.)  It sounds like the Flower of Kent probably would have gone the way of many, many other apple varieties if it wasn’t for its role in Newton’s ‘eureka moment.’   There aren’t many of them left, but a Flower of Kent tree has been planted at York University.  And, last but not least, a piece of the original tree was sent up with the space shuttle Atlantis.

At least, that’s what these articles tell me:

All in fun, but now I know. I shall now tread carefully as I will likely be challenged at every turn. But this is good stuff—learning is more fun when the good work can be complemented with cheerful and genuine curiosity…

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