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Did an Apple Inspire Newton’s Law of Gravity? Not So!

One of the biggest obstacles to improving public understanding of science in the present is ignorance of the past.

Did Isaac Newton invent the law of gravity when a falling apple hit him on the head? Were most educated people before Christopher Columbus convinced that Earth was flat? Did the Soviets launch of Sputnik lead to the revamping of American science education?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, those stories are false. And as a result, a misinformed society wastes time and energy bickering in the news media about evolution and global warming, not to mention fighting in court about The Bible versus science.

That is why two dozen historians of science from around the world will gather to debunk two dozen myths of science at Washington and Lee University May 9-10.

Although historians of science have been trying to set the record straight for more than half a century, little of what they have published has found its way into science textbooks and popular knowledge. The primary goal of the meeting is to present a new historical message to a broad audience, but especially to those who educate.

In many ways, the project is a sequel to “Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about  Science and Religion,” edited by Ronald L. Numbers and published by Harvard University Press in 2009. That well-received book, the fruit of a previous conference at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, has been translated into seven foreign languages.

Similarly, the papers of this weekend’s conference will be published in a book tentatively titled “Newton’s Apple and Other Historical Myths about Science.” It will comprise brief essays by scholars on topics ranging from the claims that there was no science done between Greek antiquity and the Scientific Revolution; that the Copernican revolution demoted the status of Earth to various misunderstandings about Galileo; to other misinformation about Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Mendel, Millikan, Michelson and Pauling. Other essays will attempt to correct widely misunderstood views about the relationship between science and religion, about the so-called “scientific method,” and the alleged boundary between science and pseudoscience.

How come so many myths have entered the bloodstream of science history and science education? The first generations of those who wrote about the development of the sciences were the scientists themselves. To them, the history of their subject was a crucial part of a strategy to get their subjects securely established or their theories accepted. For example, the historical chapters with which the great 19th century geologist Charles Lyell opened his classic “Principles of Geology” functioned as a polemic in support of his philosophy of the nature of earth history. They made Lyell’s views seem the inevitable outcome of the progress of enlightened thought and civilization. Charles Darwin did a similar thing when he added a brief history of evolutionary biology to the 4th edition of his “The Origin of Species.” That became the start of a propaganda history in support of Darwinism that continues today.

Given the tendentious purposes of those historical writings, myths were an inevitable outcome of such narrative ploys as forgetting, ignoring and misrepresenting.

Contributors to “Newton’s Apple,” also to be published by Harvard University Press, will include some of the most distinguished historians of science, as well as some up-and-coming scholars. John L. Heilbron of the University of California, Berkeley, will deliver the keynote address at the meeting, highlighting several master myths ranging from Galileo to the big bang theory. Washington and Lee University will make it available free for viewing online. If only every American could hear it.

Without accuracy, science is useless at best and harmful at worst. Mistakes in even the history of science start people down the road to false conclusions about the world around them.

If we want the public—not to mention science educators and science writers—to take a more accurate look at the place of science in society, we must first dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths. Let us hope that in doing so, our own, new myths will prove less egregious than those of generations past.

—by Nicolaas Rupke

Nicolaas Rupke is a Dutch geologist and historian of science at Washington and Lee University. His conference co-organizers are Kostas Kampourakis, a Greek science educator at the University of Geneva, and Ronald L. Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.