Tuesday, January 5, 2010

4 January: Anniversary of Newton's Birth Yields Google's First Animated Logo

The 367th anniversary of Isaac Newton's birthday moved Google (no pun intended; honest) to introduce its first animated daily logo: a branch of an apple tree from which a piece of fruit falls. Here's a still screen shot (yes, ironic, I know):

No big thrill: just one apple falls off and then just sits there. Commentary on the web varied from mere description to criticism and speculation. Huffington Post and others have the animation. digital inspiration provides the animation and the source code (not Flash or GIF animation, but JavaScript). Writing in Mashable, Stan Schroeder observed, "Although the animation — an apple falling from a tree — isn’t very flashy, it’s still a somewhat odd step for a company so dedicated to simplicity and clear design." He goes on to muse, "it could just be a one-time thing, but it could also mean that Google is ready to undertake some more 'radical' design steps in the future."

Apples in Newton's day certainly looked nothing like the one in the logo. I'll resist the temptation to talk about historical versus modern fruit varieties, their depictions, and other aspects of our horticultural heritage. Besides, the law of gravity is universal and enduring. Still, I cannot fail to note that one of the nicest gifts I received this holiday season was an 1851 lithograph of a Pomfret Russet, And those interested in the evolution of pomology could scarcely do better than to begin by consulting Peter Hatch's The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of American Horticulture, whose subtitle even better than the title best represents its scope and sweep. And Jefferson, the consummate American man of the Enlightenment, owned a copy of the death mask of Newton, the great scientific hero of the Enlightenment, so this really is more a question of six degrees of separation than a digression.

Anyway, whatever one thinks of the Logo-an-sich, three cheers to Google for choosing Newton's birth today from among the universe of possibilities (e.g.: Columbus begins return trip from first voyage to New World; Columbia University founded; Washington delivers first State of the Union address; Samuel Colt sells first revolver to US government; National Negro Baseball League organized; Elvis records demo; LBJ gives "Great Society" State of Union; Nixon refuses to hand over Watergate tapes; Newt Gingrich becomes Speaker of the House; Nancy Peloi elected Speaker, etc. etc.).

For better or worse, the legend of the apple and the discovery of gravity is virtually all that most people know about Newton. I'd bet that very few of us could name all three of his laws of motion, much less, explain the difference between his now-classical mechanics and the principles of contemporary physics. It was a gain for science when scholars began to revise the hagiographic portrayal of the purely "rational" Newton and acknowledge his interest in Scripture and astrology, but here, as in so many other cases, we may face the law of unintended consequences. Both aspects of his work appear on the History Channel. I am afraid, however, that the portrayal of the "very dark and mysterious side" of "a man secretly obsessed with alchemy and Biblical prophecy"on "The Apocalypse Code" (a sensationalized but relatively respectable entry in the execrable "Nostradamus Effect" series) will generate much more interest and popular resonance than will the more sober discussion of his more enduring achievements on "The Universe." Scientists bemoan both the public understanding of their domain and its coverage in the news media.

Still, for the meantime, Newton earned a Google logo (and a newfangled one, at that), and we can be grateful for small things. After all, as Newton's own calculus showed, infinitesimal incremental steps can eventually add up to something.

(HT: Jonathan O'Keeffe, who spottted the logo—or "Doodle," as these Google features are called—and tweeted about it before I did)

[updated link]

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