Great moments in science

10/01/2012 3:01 AM

10/01/2012 12:51 PM

(This Dave Barry column was originally published March 16, 1997.)

Settle back, because today I'm going to tell you the dramatic true story of what happened when some Japanese researchers decided to re-create the historic discovery of the law of gravity:

As you recall, this discovery occurred in an English orchard in 1666, when, according to legend, Isaac Newton, the brilliant mathematician, fell out of a tree and landed on an apple. No, hold it. Upon reviewing the videotape, I see that in fact the apple fell out of the tree and landed on Newton.

Had this occurred today, of course, Newton would have simply put on a foam neck brace and sued everybody within a radius of 125 miles. But those were primitive times, and Newton was forced to settle for discovering the law of gravity, which states: ``A dropped object will fall with an acceleration of 32 feet per second, and if it is your wallet, it will make every effort to land in a public toilet.''

Later on, Newton also invented calculus, which is defined as ``the branch of mathematics that is so scary it causes everybody to stop studying mathematics.''

That's the whole point of calculus. At colleges and universities, on the first day of calculus class, the professors go to the board and write huge, incomprehensible ''equations'' that they make up right on the spot, knowing that this will cause all the students to drop the course and never return to the mathematics building again.

This frees the professors to spend the rest of the semester playing cards and regaling one another with hilarious stories about the ''mathematical symbols'' they've invented over the years. (''Remember the time Professor Hinkwattle drew a 'cosine derivative' that was actually a picture of a squid?'')

Yes, Newton made many contributions to science, but gravity was definitely his biggest. That's why a group of Japanese researchers decided, as an international goodwill project, to re-create the original discovery, using an apple tree that was descended from the original Newton tree.

I found out about this project thanks to an alert reader named Harley Ferguson, who sent me a story about it from an English-language Japanese newspaper called The Daily Yomiuri. The article states that in August 1996, researchers at the Construction Ministry's Public Works Research Institute in Arai, Japan, received a sapling descended from the original Newton tree. This sapling, according to the story, came from the U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, which is in charge of weights and measures (so if your pants don't fit the way they used to, this is the agency to complain to).

I was curious as to why a U.S. government agency would be providing Newton saplings, so I called NIST and spoke with the official archivist, whose name is Karma A. Beal. She sent me a bunch of information, which I will attempt to summarize here:

The original Newton tree -- for simplicity's sake, let's call it ''Bob'' -- died in 1814. But before Bob went to the Big Orchard in the Sky, cuttings were taken, and over the years these cuttings became trees, and cuttings were taken from those, and so now there are genetically identical offspring -- let's call them ''Boblets'' -- all over the world.

One Boblet lives at the NIST facility in Gaithersburg, Md. It produces apples, but not many; the information Karma Beal sent me refers to the tree as (I am not making any of this up) ``a very shy fruiter.''

The story gets a little murky at this point, but apparently the sapling sent to Japan for the historic re-creation of Newton's discovery was grown from a seed from one of the NIST Boblet apples.

This is significant because if the sapling came from a seed, as opposed to a cutting, it is probably not a pure Bob descendant. As the NIST documentation states, ''the original flower was almost certainly pollinated by some other tree.'' (Trees are total sluts this way.)

But let's not be picky. The important thing is that the Japanese researchers had a sapling that was in some way connected to the original historic Bob. According to The Daily Yomiuri, their plan was to videotape the exact moment when the very first apple fell.

The sapling was planted, and eventually it produced a single apple. The researchers set up a video camera. All was in readiness as, day by day, the apple grew riper and riper, getting closer and closer to the big moment. And then, finally, it happened: A local resident, who knew nothing about any of this, wandered by, saw the apple, and ate it.

So the researchers never did get to videotape the apple falling in a historic manner, although the article states that, ''they did get scenes of the man munching on the apple.'' The man is quoted as saying, ``It just tasted really bad.''

But this does not mean the project was a waste of time. Often, in science, so-called ''failures'' produce the greatest discoveries. And this project resulted in a discovery whose value to humanity cannot be overemphasized. I refer, of course, to the fact that ''Shy Fruiter and the Saplings'' would be a great name for a rock band.

About Dave Barry

Dave Barry


Dave Barry has been at the Herald since 1983. A Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, he writes about everything from the international economy to exploding toilets.

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