A second bite at Sir Isaac's apple

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The Independent Online
Very recently we had a week called National Science Week, and my betting is 1,000-1 that you did absolutely nothing about it except feel vaguely guilty. Well, you're lucky, because this week is Hey-You- Forgot-All-About-Science-Week-Didn't-You! Week, and so you are getting a second chance and a second bite at the cherry. And that explains why, in a spirit of atonement, I now bring you a complete scientific yarn entitled:

After Newton's Apple

"Sir, could I have a word with you?"

There were two men on the college lawn. They were both scientists. The elder one was grey with bowed shoulders. He was called Professor Sir Tallis Farlow. He had money worries. That was why he was grey with bowed shoulders. Most people thought he looked that way because he was a brilliant scientist. Only his bank manager, wife, a few credit card firms and the bookmaker in the High Street knew any different.

The younger man was called Toby Farthing. He had no worries at all apart from those connected with his experiments and his turnover of dirty laundry. Oh, and a bit of girlfriend worry. Nothing else. But that was enough. That was enough to worry him. Those of us who have fewer worries do not therefore worry less. We just let our little worries seem bigger. As Einstein might have said, all worry is relative. Or if C Northcote Parkinson had extended his laws to cover worry, he might have said that worries expand to fill all available worrying space.

"Yes?" said Sir Tallis.

"I wanted to consult you about some experiments I have been doing, as I find the results quite worrying."

"Any quick money in them?" was what Sir Tallis wanted to say, but he restrained himself so far as to say simply: "Oh, yes?" He quite liked this Farthing fellow and didn't want to cut a sorry figure in his eyes.

"It's just that ..." Toby started, and then he decided to begin at the beginning, at the risk of boring the old professor. "Sir, have you ever thought what went through Newton's mind when he sat under the apple tree and felt the apple fall on his head?"

"Well, we know, surely," said Sir Tallis. "He perceived the necessity for some force of attraction which would draw the apple from the tree to the earth."

"Ah," said Toby, "but why didn't he perceive it differently? He might, after all, have visualised the possibility that the apple was staying quite still and the whole of the earth rising up to meet it."

"If he did that, he would be discovering relativity," said Sir Tallis drily. "And he would have been 300 years early."

"But why?" said Toby. "Why did anyone have to wait until the 20th century in order to discover relativity? Why couldn't Newton have done it?"

"Because you can't make discoveries outside your frame of reference, and your frame of reference is your contemporary culture. Newton lived in an age when they thought a lot about the solar system and the planets, and how they kept in place. They didn't think about the speed of light and mass and energy and all the things that bothered Einstein. Things have to come in a certain order. You can't invent Velcro before fly buttons."

This last was a remark he prized highly. He often flung it at students in lectures, and though few of them could see the point of it, they always wrote it down faithfully. Some of them even repeated it in their exam answers, and, though they did not know this, got heavily marked down for it.

"You mean," said Toby Farthing, frowning, "that when James Watt sat staring at his mother's kettle with the steam pushing the lid up, there is only one thing he could have invented from the sight: steam locomotion?"

"Well, he might have invented the steam iron," said the older man. "But one thing he could never have invented from watching his mum's kettle was the concept of the tea-bag."

"Why not?" said Farthing, startled.

"Because they hadn't got the technology, and because the cultural climate was all wrong. The tea-bag is an item of mass consumption. There was no concept of mass consumption in Watt's day - apart, of course, from the prevalence of tuberculosis." This was another of Sir Tallis's little quips, commonly to be heard at lectures. "Ergo, he could not have invented the tea-bag. Pity, because he could have made a fortune."

The both fell silent, Sir Tallis thinking of how he wouldn't mind a small fortune right now, Toby wondering if it were time yet to put the question he really wanted to ask Sir Tallis ...

Part two of this spiffing yarn tomorrow!