As the legend goes, Isaac Newton was sitting beneath an apple tree in his family’s garden when an apple conked him on the head, startling the young scientist so much that it inspired a monumental insight – his theory of gravity.
Though almost certainly embellished, the story is believed to contain at least a seed of truth. Evidence suggests that Newton’s early musings on the understanding of gravitational force were inspired by watching an apple fall from the famous tree, which first took root about 400 years ago and amazingly is still alive in the hamlet of Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, England.
Over the years, several dozen descendants of the Newton Apple Tree have been planted around the globe on the grounds of universities, research centers and even in botanical gardens.
The next location lucky enough to claim this living piece of scientific history is the main campus of Clemson University. A public ceremony recently marked the planting of a grafted clone of the Newton apple tree in a patch of soil surrounded by three buildings – Kinard Laboratory of Physics, and Martin and Long halls – that are teeming with scientists. An appropriate place, to say the least.
But the story of how a descendant of the tree came to Clemson University didn’t sprout until the first week of August 2017.
Bishwambhar Sengupta, a doctoral candidate in the College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy, met up with his faculty mentor, Endre Takacs, and Takacs’ research group during an experiment they were conducting at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While there, they visited a clone of the Newton Apple Tree that thrives on the NIST campus. Sengupta and the others found several apples lying on the ground and brought them back to Clemson.
“Seeing that tree was a very special experience for me as a scientist. It gave me goosebumps,” Sengupta said. “When I touched the trunk of the tree, it felt like being connected across time with Sir Isaac Newton.”
Sengupta gave one of the apples to Takacs, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy. Takacs, who has visited the tree at NIST many times with students, cohorts and friends, put the apple on display in a glass bowl in his house.
“At first, I thought it was just going to rot. I didn’t know what was going to happen to it. But after a couple of months, I began to notice that it was aging really beautifully,” Takacs said. “I thought, ‘This is great. This is Newton’s apple.’ And it inspired me to call a meeting with my group. That afternoon, we decided that we would form a new club within the physics department called Newton’s Apple Club. We didn’t know at the time if we were going to do anything meaningful, but starting a club can be the first step to new discoveries.”
The club quickly developed a fount of ideas: fund-raising, student support, potential seminars and lectures. But the greatest idea of all turned out to be the most adventurous. The Newton Apple Club decided to try to bring a Newton apple tree to Clemson University.
Sengupta, who is widely lauded by faculty and students for his tenacity, took control of the project. He reached out to organizations in the U.S. and U.K., but his attempts at finding genetic tissue from the original tree were met with a slew of disappointing no-thank-you’s. Finally, he caught a break. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages an enormous database of plant material, agreed to help Sengupta out. On Feb. 16, 2018, three young branches – with buds prepared for grafting onto modern rootstock – arrived at Clemson.
The physicists had done their job. Now it was time for the tree experts to take over – ironic, but fitting, that a tree made famous by a physicist would need scientists from other fields to step in and lend a hand.
Jeff Hopkins, David Ouellette and John Mark Lawton of Clemson University’s Musser Fruit Research Center began the process of grafting the buds to various rootstock (the underground portion of a plant). Hopkins, the farm manager at Musser, oversaw the project. Ouellette and Lawton, who are research horticulturists, did the actual grafting.
“I even called in some favors to get some good rootstock from an apple specialist in North Carolina, who gave us some of his own plantings,” Hopkins said. “Dave and John took over from there. Ever since, it’s been smooth as silk. We’ve budded a number of them and actually top-worked one of the apple trees we have here on the farm so that we can maintain the germplasm source if we need to make more trees. The tree we top-worked (grafting a new bud onto a mature tree) will be the first to produce fruit. It will be interesting to see what the apples look like and how they taste.”
The small tree that will be planted Wednesday on the main campus is not expected to produce fruit for at least three years. And since it is so genetically ancient, it will require extra-special care.
“Modern trees are bred for disease resistance. Because this germplasm originates from the 1600s, it has not been selected for disease resistance,” said Julia Frugoli, associate dean for inclusive excellence and graduate education in the College of Science and a longtime plant geneticist. “That being said, others of its kind have survived and produced apples. So, the future should be bright for our tree – and it’s a reminder that serendipity and creative imagination are both important parts of scientific discovery.”
Clemson University’s landscaping services is prepping the location, which had included testing and making amendments to the soil. It will also plant the tree and provide the mulch.
“The tree will be cared for using methods prescribed by the experts at Musser,” said Tommy Fallaw, director of landscaping services. “We have more than 7,000 inventoried trees on the main campus alone, but this one will certainly become one of our most special trees.”
University landscape architect Barret Anderson coordinated with landscaping services to develop a suitable location for planting.
“We considered overall visibility and the environmental conditions to make sure we had a good site that was suitable to maintain a healthy tree,” Anderson said. “A tree like this needs a lot of sunlight, so we made sure to choose a site that would have adequate sunlight. It couldn’t be in the shadow of a building for longer than it needed to be in the course of any given day. The location we finally chose is a great spot. We’re all very pleased.”
For several centuries, Newton (1642-1727) has been regarded as the father of modern physics. He conceived that the same force that caused the apple to fall straight down from the tree was also the force that governed the motion of the moon and planets. But his achievements in the physical sciences were matched by his innovations in mathematical research, and he is credited by many as the creator of calculus, the branch of mathematics upon which modern science is based. Newton was also a chemist and historian. Though much of his work has since been revised and improved upon, he inarguably remains one of the greatest scientists in human history.
“Newton’s contributions to mathematics and physics set the agenda for the development of physics until the modern physics revolution in the 20th century. Indeed, Newton’s work is still taught to students today,” said Sean Brittain, chair of the department of physics and astronomy. “But Newton was also a true renaissance man. In addition to his profound scientific contributions, Newton was a creative theologian and philosopher who made a significant impact on the enlightenment. Newton’s intellectual energy and creativity should inspire everyone engaged in the effort to roll back the frontier of human knowledge. I hope this apple tree serves as a reminder of the lasting impact one person can make across the centuries if unafraid to ask why and follow curiosity with careful thought and hard work.”
The Clemson tree is only about 7 feet tall and is as thin as a broomstick. But in the years to come, it should grow many times larger, providing fruit for hungry passersby as well as food for thought for curious minds.
Prepared by Jim Melvin, Clemson University, College of Science.
Photo: A similar tree planted at Case Western Reserve University.