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The apple doesn't fall far from Newton's tree

To celebrate a most momentous anniversary, as well as the DNA sequencing of a particularly famous apple tree for the first time, we reflect on how science has advanced since Newton came up with the theory of gravity 350 years ago.

December 21, 2016

The famous story goes that the sight of an apple falling to the ground prompted Newton to begin formulating his dream of a beautiful theory that went a long way toward defining the physical nature of our universe. Yet, he couldn't have imagined the depth at which we can now understand the biology of the very tree which bore that apple, hundreds of years down the line.

Trinity and two Isaacs.

Isaac Newton didn’t have the easiest of childhoods, being deserted by his mother and stepfather and looked after by his grandmother, albeit without getting plague or dying by the sword in a time of disease and civil war.

Though he might have ended up running a farm, Newton had showed an early proclivity towards all things mechanical. Thus, he entered down an intellectual path that was truly kickstarted when he joined Trinity College in Cambridge, where he was mentored by Isaac Barrow.

This was a time when, though now we take miles per hour for granted, rates of change were only just beginning to be explored - and Isaac Newton was steeped into the world of calculus.

In fact, while sitting out the plague away from Cambridge at his home in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, Newton set out the binomial expansion and discovered the inverse relationship between differentiation and integration - two hallmarks of a modern maths A-level.

He didn’t stop there. By the time he was 25, Newton had conceived the idea of universal gravitation via the (then) basic laws of motion and had demonstrated the full spectrum of colour that exists within white light.

As far as scientific endeavour goes, Newton’s contributions did not cease at discovery but also helped to set the groundwork for rigorous scientific investigations today. His book Optiks, from 1715, became a model for the integration of theory with quantitative experimentation.

Newton's apple tree. Credit: University of Lincoln

Newton's apple tree

The language of computers.

Any good science story often involves a degree of healthy competition.

Crick and Watson plundered the work of Rosalind Franklin while simultaneously competing with Linus Pauling across the pond. Charles Darwin was also not the only person to be conceiving of a theory of evolution by natural selection, with Alfred Russel Wallace following concomitantly in his footsteps.

So too, Isaac Newton had a formidable rival in Gottfried Leibnitz - a great German philosopher who was himself contributing hugely to the advancement of the field of mathematics.

In fact, though Newton had already, 20 years previously, conceived of his theories on calculus, his work was so secretive that when Leibnitz had published his similar findings, Newton got quite furious. It seems that they had both got to the same conclusion independently.

We can appreciate this frustration in the modern world of science. The ‘scoop’ is still a huge pressure driver for the publication of papers - though whether this is healthy in an era that should foster collaboration, as well as friendly competition, is up for debate.

However, notwithstanding this, it’s great that there were two such mathematical geniuses straddling the same continent at the same time - and it was Leibnitz who helped lay the foundation for modern computing.

Indeed, Leibnitz invented binary, and dreamed up a calculator - over 150 years before Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace worked together on the “Analytical Engine”.

Newton - to infinity and beyond.

Fast forward to 2016 and we take for granted that the moon circles the earth for pretty much the same reason an apple falls from a tree.

Physics students across the world take it for granted that an object will remain still unless acted upon by a force, that force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (physically speaking).

Similarly, mathematics students can swiftly work out rates of change using differentiation, or find the area under a curve or the volume of a solid using integration - while I’ve never even really questioned that (x + y)2 = x2 + 2xy + y2.

Now I can drive a car, Elon Musk can shoot a rocket to Mars (if he so wishes) and we can even do DNA sequencing in space.

Optiks to supercomputers.

We discussed binary before - and binary has been the mathematical friend that has allowed me to type this article on a computer, let humans reach the moon and has enabled Justin Bieber to achieve worldwide acclaim for his questionable musical talents.

However, we’re moving into an era in which we are producing so much data that it will require more energy to compute it than we will have the capacity to produce.

I wonder if Newton could have foreseen that physics and maths would lead down such spectacularly ingenious paths as inventing optical computers? When he was gazing at the full spectrum of light, did he imagine that we could use it to process vast sets of information?

That’s the aim of Optalysys, working in partnership with Earlham Institute, who wish to establish a step-change in faster high performance computing, using light rather than electricity - which can run at a much lower cost. Cooling down contemporary computers is becoming untenable both in terms of cost and energy efficiency.

With the enormous wealth of data generated by platforms such as our National Capability in next generation genome sequencing - this sort of breakthrough is of incredible value to the field of life sciences - and is the sort of conception that imaginably, Newton would have been impressed by (or jealous of, depending on whether he liked you or not).

Back to apples.

Speaking of next generation genome sequencing, the University of Lincoln, in collaboration with the Earlham Institute and National Trust, has gone back in genetic time to sequence the very apple tree that bore the theory of universal gravitation.

Some say the centre of the solar system is the sun ... or is it Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire?

Far from being a mere gimmick, it’s a very interesting project. The tree that shed the apple of huge scientific gravity three hundred and fifty years ago is also a historic remnant of Britain’s agricultural heritage.

The apples we eat today are a little different than the ones consumed in Newton’s time, and there aren’t too many examples from which to glean the genetic history of one of our favourite fruits.

Similarly to how we can trace the domestication process in our crop plants from looking into the genomes of wild relatives, there might be glimpses within the genome of this apple that can help us to understand how our modern apples have come to be.

And, furthermore, it’s a wonderful way to celebrate the achievements of a man who gifted us with some of the most important scientific discoveries that are still so widely applicable today.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications Officer (Part time)