Everyone knows that Isaac Newton came up with the law of gravity after seeing an apple fall from a tree in his mother’s garden. Newton himself told the story to several contemporaries, who recorded it for posterity.
Ever since, Newton has been credited with discovering the law, describing how “All celestial bodies whatsoever have an attraction or gravitating power towards their own centres”. But these words are not Newton’s. They were penned by his scientific rival Robert Hooke in 1670, decades before Newton started telling people the apple story. This has led some historians to suspect Newton deliberately made up the story of the apple to back his claim to priority.
While Hooke is best known today for a dull law about springs, he was one of the most brilliant scientists of his time, and made a host of discoveries. He even showed Newton to be wrong on an esoteric point concerning falling bodies. This did not go down well with the pathologically prickly Newton, who seems to have set about showing he had worked on gravity years before Hooke, leading to his claim about being inspired by the apple back in 1666.
No one doubts that Newton made the biggest contribution to understanding gravity, but sadly for Hooke, Newton wanted to have the credit for everything.
Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.