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Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa ✸ 47 3 Newton’s Apple and the Tree of Knowledge et’s dispel another widespread myth: that Newton was born in the same year Galileo died. This mistake continues to appear in recent literature, such as in this example: “He died in 1642, within a few days of Isaac Newton’s birth.”1 Writers often claim that both events happened in 1642, which, by the way, would fit nicely with the Pythagorean idea of the transmigration of souls. I have even found some writers who claimed that Newton “was born on the very day on which Galileo died.”2 As other writers know,the mistake stems from using the Gregorian calendar to date the death of Galileo while using the old Julian calendar to date the birth of Newton. Actually, there transpired almost a year’s difference. In the Gregorian calendar, Galileo died on 8 January 1642 and Newton was born on 4 January 1643. In the old Julian calendar, Galileo died on 29 December 1641 whereas Newton was born on Christmas Day, 25 December 1642. It’s actually necessary to write the exact dates, as otherwise, we meet additional confusions. For example, bestselling physicist Stephen W. Hawking wrote the following: “Galileo died on 8 January 1642, exactly three hundred years before the day I was born. Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day of that year in the English industrial town of Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire. He would later become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, the chair I now hold.”3 This wonderful passage has several mythic dimensions. The coincidences of space and time seem to imply a connection between Galileo, Newton, and Hawking. But Hawking was confused about Newton’s birth; using the Gregorian calendar it was not on Christmas Day and it was not L 47 the same year as when Galileo died. Woolsthorpe was not an“industrial town,” it’s a small village. Note also the use of the phrase “He would later become,”as if Newton was destined at birth to become great. Other writers echo the mistake about dates, and some even do it on purpose. One textbook, using the same dates given by Hawking, adds this footnote :“Because England had not yet reformed its calendar, 25 December 1642, in England was 4 January 1643, in Europe. It is only a small deception to use the English date.”4 Instead of just fixing the factual mistake, the editors preferred to keep it. Anyhow, let’s talk about the apple. For more than two centuries, hundreds of commentators have written thousands of words about the story of Newton’s apple. But most of these are based on very little evidence. Even good biographers who cite evidence tend to just allude to documents , rather than quote them, and they ignore or omit various sources. Since there exists no comprehensive account of the historical evidence and its early interpretations, I will now give one.5 By comprehensive, I do not mean exhaustive, I merely mean that I’ve assembled more evidence on the matter than is available in any other source. To do so, I have abstained from any of the many psychological, speculative, and literary themes that many writers develop when referring to this topic.While I find many of those commentaries to be engaging and insightful, I will focus on a plain accounting of documentary evidence. I hope that the following material helps to facilitate the systematic study of myths in science and how they grow. In 1662, the nineteen-year-old Isaac was experiencing intense religious concerns. To confess his sins in a private, hidden way, he wrote them in a brief, cryptic code. He listed sins that, across the years, he had occasionally committed against God. First on Newton’s list was “Using the word‘God’ openly”; he also included,“Not loving Thee for Thy self,” “Not desiring Thy ordinances,”“Fearing man above Thee,” and “Caring for worldly things more than God.”6 Newton also listed various acts that he should not have done on God’s day: twisting a cord, making a mousetrap , making pies, idle chatting, squirting water, swimming, and, second on his list:“Eating an apple at Thy house.” He also included graver sins: lying, stealing, robbing his mother’s box of plums and sugar, putting a 48 ✸ Newton’s Apple and the Tree of Knowledge pin in someone’s hat to prick him, punching his sister,“Striking many” people, wishing death to...


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