Newton's tree

On George Washington's birthday, I found myself in his home state of Virginia, participating in a tree planting ceremony at the College of William & Mary. No, it was not a cherry tree, but a chip off the apple tree that allegedly led Sir Isaac Newton to formulate the Law of Universal Gravitation. Newton, escaping the plague in London in 1666, was sitting in his mother's garden when he saw an apple drop from a tree. Being Newton, he extrapolated the apple's fall to the Moon's orbit, and soon concluded that all bodies everywhere attracted one another according to their relative masses and the distances between them. Newton cited the apple tree's inspiration in his memoirs. By the time of his death in 1727 the tree had become iconic. University officials at Cambridge obtained a cutting from it to plant outside the window of Newton's office, perhaps in the hope it would stimulate the imaginations of succeeding occupants. (These include Stephen Hawking.)

In the mid-twentieth century, another piece of Newton's tree took root in the American Cambridge, on MIT soil. Given that MIT was founded by a graduate of William & Mary, Virginia physicists lobbied successfully for several cuttings to be sent to Williamsburg. Horticulturists then spent two years coaxing the grafts to grow on root systems suited to the clay-rich dirt of the southern Commonwealth. The best of their efforts -- a slender "whip" about six feet tall and a couple of inches in diameter, bearing many buds -- drew cheers from a crowd of some two hundred "Newton Day" enthusiasts, many of whom  took turns with shovels to help plant it in front of Small Hall, the campus physics building.

The tree should see its first yield within five years. These will be green "Flower of Kent" apples, one of  7,500 known varieties of the tempting fruit long synonymous with knowledge.