The tree of knowledge

We are all pretty familiar with the story of Isaac Newton developing the theory of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree. But did you know that descendants of that very tree are growing at our Gracefield Innovation QuarterKylie Freeman explains.

The story of the contribution a falling apple made to Newton’s revolutionary theory of gravity is extremely well-known. Less well known until very recently, was the story of how a cutting of the tree ended up in Lower Hutt.

In the mid-1660s, Newton was at his family home in northern England after an outbreak of the plague closed the University of Cambridge, where he had been studying. As he sat in contemplative mood, he saw an apple fall from a tree.

Newton’s contemporary William Stukeley, recounts Newton’s thought process: ‘Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the Earth’s centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the Earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter.’

The living descendant of Newton's famous tree, with Callaghan Innovation International ... Victoria Hallum. Note the gravity-obedient apple in near background.

The living descendant of Newton’s famous tree, with Callaghan Innovation international partnerships and policy manager Victoria Hallum. Note the gravity-obeying apple in near background.

More than three centuries later, a a letter discovered in a drawer at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences provided the link between a fairly nondescript apple tree at what is now Callaghan Innovation’s Gracefield Innovation Quarter.

Appropriately enough, our Gracefield site is home to a large number of our in-house scientific product development staff, as well as Victoria University of Wellington’s Robinson Research Institute, which works on applied physics.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

The letter, from Dr. Mervyn Probine, a Director of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Physical and Engineering Laboratory, explained the link between the 17th century tree and its contemporary descendant.

“Newton’s original apple tree was a ‘Flower of Kent’ variety, and was said to have died in 1814.” The letter reveals that before it died, grafts of the tree were taken “and the resulting progeny planted in Lord Brownlow’s kitchen garden at Belton. Trees at East Melling Research Station [the predecessor to Gracefield] were propagated in 1940 from grafts of the Belton tree.”

Callaghan Innovation national property manager Mike Williams reveals the nomadic journey of the tree from there.

“The tree was dug up sometime after 1976.  But a further cutting was taken and it was replanted in the courtyard outside A wing Robertson Building.

“However, that has since been dug up also and cuttings from this have been scattered all around the site – two significant areas are the training cottage and front of B Block.”

The story of our tree has attracted the attention of the Wellington Botanic Gardens who are involved in a project to propagate worthy heritage trees and eventually plant them back into local communities.

The “Newton Tree” continues to produce apples, which continue to obey the laws of gravity devised with the help of their distant ancestor.

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