Did an apple really fall onto Isaac Newton's head?

A few weeks ago I wrote about famous science urban legends. I left one out, because I thought it was too obviously a myth to be worth putting on the list. Turns out, it actually happened.

What's the most simple-minded science urban legend you could ever come up with? Here's a hint, it's been parodied in cartoons and repeated in elementary school classrooms.

It's the apple falling on Newton's head, right? That's the hokey children's story we all get told to explain why a genius first investigated the problem of things falling towards the ground. It's a cute, simple story, but it can't be true. It has to be one of those odd fruit-tree related stories that the 1700s seemed, unaccountably, to spawn — like George Washington not lying about chopping down the cherry tree.

Except, it appears that it actually is true. We get the truth of it from no less a source than Newton himself. During an interview with his biographer, he did say that watching an apple fall out of a tree was the thing that first got him wondering about gravity. In fact, he told the story to anyone who would listen. There are records of many of these re-tellings, including one pinning down the exact date of the miraculous apple. It happened in 1666, when Newton had fled the plague in Cambridge and sat thinking in his mother's garden, he wondered if the same force that made an apple fall also applied to the Moon, and everything else in the sky. He decided to investigate if some single force could explain all of their motion.

Today, we embellished the story, saying that an apple fell on Newton's head. No historical records mention that — although Newton was a prickly fellow and probably wouldn't confess if it did happen. But the basic story? That's true.

Via Mad Science