Bureaucrat's Handbook
Developing Antidotes for Bureaucracy

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Just So Stories
Easy Explanations

Everyone knows that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity in a brilliant flash of insight when he saw an apple fall from a tree at his uncle's farm. Few people know that the facts are very different from this charming story. In January 1680 Robert Hooke wrote a letter to Isaac Newton proposing that the planets are attracted toward the sun by a force inversely proportional to the distance squared. In November 1684 Newton wrote a draft of De Motu including an error that reveals he had not yet developed the concept of universal gravitation. Around 1717 Newton began circulating the now-famous story that a falling apple set him on the chain of thought that led to his discovery of universal gravitation. Presumably Newton fabricated this just-so story to make plausible his false claim that he understood universal gravitation many years earlier.

We love telling and retelling stories and the best story often wins. Interesting stories often displace the more difficult facts of the situation. This may be accidental or deliberate; it is often easier to make up a story than to investigate or disclose the facts. Investigate the facts for yourself before deciding to believe the story. 

References:


Just So Stories for Little Children, Rudyard Kipling, 1902

Newton's Discovery of Gravity, I. Bernard Cohen, Scientific American, March 1981.

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