Apple trees from Isaac Newton’s bring ‘magic’ to universities around the world

Apple trees from Isaac Newton’s bring ‘magic’ to universities around the world

Newton’s trees combine history, science, folklore and legend, which makes them enchanting

On a cold, sunny day in December, Jean-Michel Poutissou paused to admire the six apple trees that he once fought to save.

Poutissou came to Vancouver in October 1972 when the trees on the campus of physics laboratory TRIUMF were mere saplings. The trees are scions of the same tree that Sir Isaac Newton is said to have sat under as he pondered gravity.

Poutissou, a researcher emeritus at TRIUMF, said the trees “were happily growing” until the mid-1990s when condo developers wanted a straight road from the campus to the homes. The trees were in danger of being axed.

“Nobody (involved in the development) cared too much about Newton apple trees,” he said. “For them, they were in the way.”

It took a campaign to convince the president of the University of British Columbia, where TRIUMF is located, to intervene and save the roundabout where the trees are planted, he said.

Now nearly 50 years old, the trees are covered in buds that will fatten over the winter before bursting into fruit.

Poutissou said he’s tasted the apples but that was a long time ago and he doesn’t remember their exact flavour.

“It’s not quite unlike a McIntosh but don’t hold me to that,” he said with a laugh.

The trees’ journey began sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Letters between the University of British Columbia and the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England, show that on the day two grafts of the trees arrived in Vancouver on an Air Canada flight on Jan. 4, 1971, the ground was covered in more than 50 centimetres of snow.

The two cuttings were further grafted and now six trees sit on the TRIUMF campus.

Today, the National Trust in the U.K. is the custodian of the original apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, where Newton considered the laws of gravity. The tree is called Flower of Kent, a traditional variety, which produces cooking apples of varying sizes.

An email from the organization says there are many universities around the world that have twins of the original tree. It’s not known how the idea to send universities Newton’s apple trees came about and there doesn’t seem to be a tradition or policy, it says.

“It’s likely this was spread more by word of mouth between universities.”

The tree is an icon of learning, discovery and the start of the era of modern science, the trust says.

In 1820, a storm blew over the original tree, but it survived and continued to grow new roots, the organization says.

Seeds from its descendants have also defied gravity and made a trip to space, thanks to Robert Prince, professor emeritus of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Toronto.

Astronaut Steve MacLean was Prince’s student. He was assigned to a space flight in 2006 and his former teacher had a task for him. He wanted MacLean to take a picture of an apple floating over his head.

“I had this idea of doing something rather humorous with this apple over his head and staying and not falling like Newton’s theory of microgravity,” Price said in an interview.

When MacLean told Prince he wasn’t allowed to take fresh fruit because of contamination, the seeds were sent up instead.

Prince said the seeds are now in the possession of the physics department at York University.

“They may go on display at some point along with other MacLean’s artifacts.”

The trees on York’s campus were planted in 1999.

Originally three trees were planted but some didn’t survive because of the climate, while others were damaged. Only one took root.

“It survived and bore fruit quickly,” Prince said. “I was surprised at how quickly we got fruit off it.”

The apples are not very big. “Like a crabapple size,” he added.

There has also been an imposter of the Newton apple tree in Canada.

Two Newton apple trees at the National Research Council in Ottawa were thought to be grafts from the original tree that were sent over in the 1960s, but it was determined they were unrelated to the tree Newton sat under. The tree was a Newton’s apple, but a variety of the fruit.

Dick Bourgeois-Doyle, who exposed the imposter trees while working on a book for the council’s centennial celebrations in 2016, says he felt guilty having uncovered it.

His plan for a limited-edition coffee table book was going to include a memento from the apple tree: a leaf or a seed. During his research, he found that the twin from the original apple tree died possibly victims of disease or Ottawa winters, in the 1990s.

“It sort of popped a balloon because people had a lot of pride seeing those two trees and there’s a big bronze plaque in front of it here in Ottawa,” he said.

To be sure, he sent off leaf samples to an agricultural institute in England, which confirmed his research.

That year, he contacted York University and was sent a seedling from one of their Newton apple trees, which is growing at the research council.

Newton probably wasn’t clunked on the head with an apple but the tree is still a touchstone linked to a significant point in scientific history, Bourgeois-Doyle said.

Newton’s trees combine history, science, folklore and legend, which makes them enchanting, he said.

“If you can hold something in your hand or touch or look at something and that has a thread going back to Woolsthorpe Manor, it has a little bit of magic to it.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits Nanoose Bay property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury

The section of Highway 19A between Laburnum Road and Goodyear Road was closed to traffic due to a single vehicular accident. (DriveBC illustration)
Section of highway closed after vehicle hits pole near Qualicum Beach

Traffic disrupted for hours; two people taken to hospital

Joan LeMoine. (Peter McCully photo)
OPINION: Joan LeMoine represented the very best in all of us

Beloved Parksville area volunteer left an indelible mark on the community

Seiners fill the waters between Comox and Nanoose Bay during roe herring fishery. file photo, Pacific Wild
Quota debate heats up on the eve of Vancouver Island herring fishery

Industry and conservationists weigh in how much catch should be allowed as DFO decision coming soon

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

A still from surveillance footage showing a confrontation in the entranceway at Dolly’s Gym on Nicol Street on Friday morning. (Image submitted)
Troublemaker in Nanaimo fails at fraud attempt, slams door on business owner’s foot

VIDEO: Suspect causes pain and damage in incident downtown Friday morning

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Randy Brown, owner of Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue, has five trailers and a motorhome at the back of his property that he is renting to people who had been previously homeless. He wants to put 15 trailers on his property, hooked up to city sewer and water and BC Hydro. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Alberni building owner digs in, refuses to remove illegal trailers

Port Alberni council gives owner two-week reprieve on remediation orders

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

Dr. Shannon Waters, the medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley Region, is reminding people to stay the course with COVID-19 measures. (File photo)
‘Stay the course’ with COVID measures, Island Health reminds

Limit social activity, wash hands, wear a mask, and isolate if you feel sick

Cowichan Tribes members line up at a drive-up clinic on Wednesday, Jan. 13 to receive the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in the region. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
BCAFN condems racism against Cowichan Tribes after COVID-19 outbreak

“Any one of us could do everything right and still catch the virus”: Regional Chief Terry Teegee.

Most Read