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Opinion: March 2011

Don’t misrepresent scientific progress

Max Wallis debunks Newton’s apple

If the public is to engage with science, it must understand how science is done.  Stories about the scientific discovery process need to show that many people contribute in scientific advances, following clues and making intuitive guesses, maybe chasing false trails.  

The apple story

In 1752, William Stukeley published a biography of his friend, Sir Isaac Newton, which tells the famous story:

Max Wallis debunks Newton’s apple

If the public is to engage with science, it must understand how science is done.  Stories about the scientific discovery process need to show that many people contribute in scientific advances, following clues and making intuitive guesses, maybe chasing false trails.  

The apple story

In 1752, William Stukeley published a biography of his friend, Sir Isaac Newton, which tells the famous story:

‘Stukeley and Newton were sitting in the shade of some apple trees in Newton's garden in Kensington, when Newton recalled how his thoughts had turned to gravity.’

Stukeley's original manuscript in the Royal Society archives continues:

‘He told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came to mind. 

‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. Why should it not go sideways or upwards? but constantly towards the Earth's centre?  Assuredly the reason is, that the earth draws it.  There must be drawing power in matter... it must be in proportion of its quantity of matter.’ 

Poor choice

This tale of Newton’s apple does not reflect how the theory of gravitation was actually established. It was a poor choice for promotion by the Royal Society, when they used it to launch the society’s 350th anniversary in January 2010.

The extensive scholarship of Newton studies highlights an excellent opportunity to promote public understanding of the scientific process.  Why characterise Newton as the unique discoverer of gravity, rather than show the vital role played by various Fellows and the arena for discussion and publication given by the Royal Society? 

Historians of science are well aware that the Stukeley story is a myth.1

Background of ideas

Newton famously framed the principle of gravity in mathematical form in Principia, in 1687. This flowed from developing the concepts of dynamics and applying them to the solar system, over the previous decades.

Universal gravitation as an idea can be traced from Galileo’s seeing, in 1610, Jupiter and its four moons circling the planet. Ten years before, Kepler had written, ‘there is a force in the earth which causes the moon to move’.  In 1659, Christiaan Huygens found that a body could move in a circle around a central force, using Descartes’ dynamics.  Robert Hooke investigated changes in gravity up mountains and down mines, while his study of lunar craters led him to write, in 1665, ‘there is in the Moon a principle of gravitation, such as in the Earth’.  In his Royal Society lecture ‘On Gravity’ of 21 March 1666, Hooke called gravitation ‘one of the most Universall Active Principles in the World’, and argued the Sun exerts an attractive force on all planets and comets that balances centrifugal force.

Hooke and Newton

Gravity as a solar system principle became a hot topic in the Royal Society.  We know Hooke conjectured inverse square dependence (the mathematical formulation of the way gravitational force works) prior to disclosing this to Newton in correspondence in 1679.  Newton’s special contributions lay in showing a sphere acts like a point mass at its centre and to find mathematically that orbits are closed under an inverse square force.

It was evidently Hooke’s challenge to relate Kepler orbits to the inverse square law that goaded Newton into writing his Principia.  

How science progresses

This makes an excellent story to show the public how science progresses and to point out the Royal Society’s key role in its first decade in establishing the theory of gravity. 

Giving credence to the apple myth instead fosters the misunderstanding that science is discovered or advances through a few exceptional individuals.

1 Derek Djertsen (1986), The Newton Handbook, Routledge and Kegan Paul, section reproduced at www.sfu.ca/physics/ugrad/courses/teaching_resources/demoindex/mechanics/mech1l/apple.html

No place for food industries in healthier eating campaign

They are not suitable government partners, argues Christine Haigh

From our work with families around the country, we know that many people have found ideas from the Change4Life anti-obesity campaign1 really useful in helping them to adopt healthier lifestyles.  But what has set alarm bells ringing is the increasing involvement of food companies in the campaign. 

They are not suitable government partners, argues Christine Haigh

From our work with families around the country, we know that many people have found ideas from the Change4Life anti-obesity campaign1 really useful in helping them to adopt healthier lifestyles.  But what has set alarm bells ringing is the increasing involvement of food companies in the campaign. 

Members of Business4Life, ‘a coalition of companies representing the food and drink, retail, media, advertising, fitness and health industries, which are partnering with government to support its Change4Life movement’ include the soft drink industry (Britvic, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo), chocolate companies (Mars, Nestlé, and Cadbury – now owned by Kraft), a crisp manufacturer (Walkers are owned by PepsiCo) and an ice cream maker (Unilever produce Wall’s and also own Ben & Jerry’s).

Undermining messages

Exactly how enthusiastically are these companies going to encourage us to eat less of their best selling products?  Or, more troubling, how effectively can they undermine Change4Life’s key messages?  Only last year, Change4Life partner Kellogg’s ran an aggressive advertising campaign encouraging children to eat Coco Pops as an after-school snack.  Never mind that Coco Pops are one-third sugar – somewhat contradicting Change4Life’s encouragement for us to ‘snack check’ (limit snacks and switch to healthier choices) and make ‘sugar swaps’ (swap food and drink with added sugar for products that are lower in sugar or sugar-free).

Then, in October, it was revealed that Nestlé was breaching the campaign guidelines by using the Change4Life logo on a promotional website for sweets, chocolate and sugary cereals.  It was hastily removed when it emerged that the Department of Health had approved its use in error. But it raises questions as to why the company ever thought that this was an appropriate use of the campaign’s branding, since the guidelines clearly state that it must only be used where it supports ‘desired changes in behaviour as regards diet’.

It’s not hard to imagine why companies are so keen to be involved with Change4Life.  The association generates a ‘halo effect’, giving them the appearance of being responsible whilst distracting from the elephant in the room: the real action that the food industry could take to help address the record levels of obesity that make theUKthe fattest inEurope.  The food industry has fought any attempts at ‘traffic light’ nutritional labelling or regulation to protect children from their incessant marketing for junk food.

Discount vouchers

The latest phase of the campaign sees a change in the role of corporate partners.

Under the previous government, companies were seen as a means by which Change4Life could reach a greater audience – the lack of conditions on the involvement of the food industry represented a huge oversight.  In the ‘Great Swapathon’, launched by the coalition government this January to capitalise on people’s good intentions for a healthier New Year, corporate involvement is embedded as a key part of the strategy, with Change4Life partners providing discount vouchers on some of their products.  

Of course vouchers and promotional offers are an effective form of marketing - and even more so when they come with a veneer of social responsibility. But our analysis has demonstrated that the companies involved would end up pocketing over twice the value of the discount vouchers were shoppers to redeem them.  And more than half the value of the discount is available even without the vouchers. Here, the company involved is simply benefiting from additional advertising. 

So why does the Children’s Food Campaign, along with many other public health bodies, oppose food industry involvement in healthy eating campaigns?  Because it undermines the campaign and distracts from real solutions.

Both the Department of Health and Unilever declined to write a response 

 

 

Dr Max Wallis
Dr Max Wallis is at the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, Cardiff University
Christine Haigh
Christine Haigh is a Children’s Food Campaign Coordinator at Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming
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