Myths of innovation

One grand myth is the story of Isaac Newton and the discovery of gravity. As it’s often told, Newton was sitting under a tree, an apple fell on his head, and the idea of gravity was born. It’s entertaining more than truthful, turning the mystery of ideas into something innocent, obvious, and comfortable. Instead of hard work, personal risk, and sacrifice, the myth suggests that great ideas come to people who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. The catalyst of the story isn’t even a person: it’s the sad, nameless, suicidal apple.

It’s disputed whether Newton ever observed an apple fall. He certainly was never struck by one, unless there’s secret evidence of fraternity food fights while he was studying in Cambridge. Even if the apple incident took place, the legend discounts Newton’s 20 years of work to explain gravity. Just as Columbus didn’t discover America, Newton did not actually discover gravity—the Egyptian pyramids and Roman coliseums prove that people understood the concept we l before Newton. Rather, he used math to explain more precisely than anyone before him how gravity works. While this contribution is certainly important, it’s not the same as discovery.

The best possible truth to take from the apple myth is that Newton was a deeply curious man who spent time observing things in the world. He watched the stars in the sky and studied how light moved through air, all as part of his scientific work to understand the world. It was no accident that he studied gravity. Even if the myth were true and he did see an apple fall, he made so many other observations based on ordinary things that his thinking couldn’t have been solely inspired by fruity accidents in the park. Newton’s apple myth is a story of epiphany or “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something,”1 and in the mythology of innovation, epiphanies serve an important purpose.

- Page 4 of Chapter 1, Myths of Innovation By Scott Berkun.

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