Newton’s famous apple tree to experience zero gravity

10 May 2010

A piece of Newton’s apple tree is being taken into space by British-born astronaut Piers Sellers on the next NASA mission STS 132.  The section of wood, taken from the original tree that inspired Newton to formulate his theory of gravitation, was released from the Royal Society’s archives and entrusted to NASA Astronaut Piers Sellers as part of the Society’s 350th anniversary year celebrations.  In addition to the piece of tree, the Society has also provided an image of Sir Isaac Newton, former President of the Royal Society, to accompany the historic item into space.

Piers Sellers said: “We’re delighted to take this piece of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree to orbit. While it’s up there, it will be experiencing no gravity, so if it had an apple on it, the apple wouldn’t fall.  I’m pretty sure that Sir Isaac would have loved to see this, assuming he wasn’t spacesick, as it would have proved his first law of motion to be correct.  After the flight, we will be returning the piece of tree and a flown picture of Sir Isaac Newton back to The Royal Society.”

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and thus Newton’s modern-day successor, said: “We are both pleased and proud that such an extraordinary part of scientific history and important element of the Royal Society’s archive collection can make this historic trip into space.  Upon their return the piece of tree and picture of Newton will form part of the History of the Royal Society exhibition that the Society will be holding later this year and will then be held as a permanent exhibit at the Society.”

The original version of the famous story of Newton and the falling apple was made available by the Royal Society for the first time in manuscript form earlier this year.  The story – in which Newton claims to have received inspiration for the theory of gravitation from seeing a falling apple in his garden – was told by Newton to William Stukeley and originally appeared in his 1752 biography, ‘Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life’.  The most celebrated anecdote in science exists as a fragile paper manuscript in the Royal Society’s archives, but it can now be viewed in a fully interactive format by anybody with internet access.

NASA’s Space Shuttle Atlantis will lift off for its final, 12-day mission on 14th May 2010 (launch target), with six crew members including British-born Mission Specialist Piers J. Sellers.   Piers has been into space twice before and will, on this mission, be responsible for working with the station arm, supporting the space walks.  More information about Piers can be found here.