Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree Grows at Tufts

Thanks to an eminent Tufts cosmologist and his colleagues, Tufts University has received cuttings from an apple tree at MIT that traces its lineage to the English farm where Sir Isaac Newton lived in the 1600s. While it will be years before the cuttings, now being nurtured at a Massachusetts orchard, bear fruit, the apples that grow at Tufts could descend from the one that famously dropped on Newton and led to his theory on the universal law of gravitation.

The novel addition to the Tufts campus will be largely due to physics professor Alex Vilenkin, director of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, and his affinity for Newton’s apple. Vilenkin’s ceremony for graduating Ph.D. students in cosmology pays tribute to Newton: he drops an apple on their heads as a way to inspire new approaches to physics. He’s also been to the site of the original apple’s fabled fall.

“There was a meeting some years ago celebrating 300 years of the publication of Newton’s book ‘Principia,’ the ‘Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica,’ and we had a little excursion to Newton’s farm in Lincolnshire,” says Vilenkin, the L. and J. Bernstein Professor of Evolutionary Science in the Tufts School of Arts and Sciences. “There are apple trees growing there.”

Vilenkin knew that MIT had a tree descended from the apple tree at Newton’s farm, by way of England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He hinted to his MIT colleague and collaborator, physicist Alan Guth, that it would be nice to have a cutting from the tree to plant at Tufts, in part to celebrate the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology.

MIT President Susan Hockfield agreed, and John Vik, grounds manager at Tufts, headed to MIT this spring. “I took three good-sized branches,” Vik reports.

He handed them off to Tufts’ George Ellmore, an associate professor of biology in the School of Arts and Sciences, who took them to an orchard in Harvard, Mass., and splice grafted the cuttings onto orchard rootstock. In splice grafting, cuts are made on a diagonal and mated with a similarly cut young tree and bound with tape.

“We’ll know by mid-July whether or not our grafting attempts were successful,” says Ellmore. “If the grafts are successful, we could plant the tree at Tufts in late fall, once the trees go dormant in November.”

If the grafts aren’t successful, due to incompatibility with the rootstock, the Tufts team will purchase commercial rootstock from a national supplier, graft a new set of branches onto them in the fall and plant them directly at Tufts.

“Either way, there should be a Newton apple tree at Tufts by the end of 2009,” says Ellmore.

Where it would be planted at Tufts is as yet undecided.

And what about the legend of Newton and the apple tree? In fact, Newton apparently said that the idea of universal gravity occurred to him when he saw an apple fall from a tree. Even though the story might seem a bit unlikely, “If somebody made it up, it was Newton himself,” says Vilenkin. “From people who wrote about it, some heard the story from Newton.”

Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university is widely encouraged.

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