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Essays for amateurs and professionals interested in  Science


    the foundation for community access to science Henry Mulder
[1939-2009]
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Newton and Hooke - A Tale of Two Giants
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Image courtesy of NASA


Image courtesy of NASA


Image courtesy of NASA


Image courtesy of NASA


Feature Article
Newton and Hooke (ESS14)

A Tale of Two Giants


Written by...

"What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking ye colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants."
-From a letter written by Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, 5 Feb. 1676

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.1 I don't know who first came up with this observation but I suppose it is one of the motivations behind this website. As you attempt to make some sense of our common history you will likely be struck by the fact that in many ways history does repeat itself because ultimately, we as people don't really change that much.

Any of you who are fans of Agatha Christie's "Miss Marple" will recall that one of her main tools was to compare personalities in her "cases" with people she knew back in her village of St. Mary Meade. I imagine that Christie who was a pretty shrewd observer of people, came up with this device because she too noticed how certain behaviors tend to repeat.

Let's examine the case of Robert Hooke and his contempory, Isaac Newton. Every time you read about Hooke such as here for example, one theme repeats itself: "Hooke was a brilliant scientist and Newton did him in." It's hard to say just how accurate this portrayal is, but it does appear to parallel the lives of two other brilliant individuals.

The names Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison come to mind. I'm not going to spend too much time on either gentleman here, but suggest you do a little research yourself. What you will find is that Tesla was not only brilliant, giving us many of the things we take for granted, but what Edison allegedly did to destroy Tesla almost went beyond the pale. In fact Tesla's relative obscurity is often blamed directly on Thomas Edison. I'll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions

Which brings me back to Hooke and Newton. It is often suggested that not only did Newton "borrow" ideas from Hooke, he wasn't always inclined, the above quote notwithstanding, to give Hooke as much credit as he deserved. In fact there is evidence to suggest that Hooke had a more accurate picture of gravity and planetary motion than did Newton. Yet it is Newton who we think of when it comes to both.

We often refer to Newtonian physics yet Hooke had done much of the work that made Newton's work possible. Robert Hooke was definitely recognized in his day. For example he was appointed curator of experiments for the New Royal Society on the 5th November 1662 a post he held for 40 years. The year Hooke died in 1703, Isaac Newton became (some say finagled his way into) President of the Royal Society.

It may be a coincidence but the only known portrait of Hooke which had been housed in the President's office, was mysteriously lost as were the records of much of Hooke's work. In Newton's defense it could be argued that the lack of acknowledgment for Robert Hooke and his contribution to science could be blamed on Hooke himself.

Being a polymath, involved with many diverse projects, experiments, explorations, and activities he may not have always followed through with proper publication of his work. He was above all a hands-on experimenter who made significant contributions to microscopy, optics, time keeping, geography, meteorology, the nature of gases, architecture and construction to name but a few. He was also inclined to freely share his thoughts with others such as Van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren.

Newton by contrast was a mathematician and as a consequence was very detailed is his writings. In addition, as related by James Gleick in his recent biography of Newton, he was inclined to be secretive and did not share Hooke's gregarious and ingenuous personality. Neither man got an auspicious start in life. Newton's father had died before he was born and he did not have a robust constitution.

Although Hooke did know his parents, he was orphaned by age 13. Like Newton, he was thin and spare and in addition, by all accounts just plain ugly. Yet he carried on a lively correspondence with Van Leeuwenhoek and others. Since Hooke didn't speak Dutch and Van Leeuwenhoek didn't speak English they worked through an interpreter by name of Theodore Haak.

In addition he corresponded with Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Newton. He was also in touch with another dutchman, Christiaan Huygens although that relationship like that with Newton, deteriorated into bitter acrimony later in life (in the case of Huygens over the invention of the balance-spring watch). Anyway, enough of the personality clashes, what did either man contribute to our science?

Alexander Pope one of the great poets of the Enlightenment, was given to enthuse "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, Let Newton be! and all was light." This gives you some idea of Newton's stature. In fact, he is generally regarded as the most original and influential theorist in the history of science.

In addition to his invention of the calculus and a new theory of light and color, Newton transformed the structure of physical science with his three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. Newton's work combined the contributions of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and others into a new and powerful synthesis.

Newton's efforts were the first tentative steps toward a theory of everything. Though the inadequacies of his theories eventually became apparent because of Einstein and the ramifications of Quantum mechanics, as a working model it was pretty adequate. In fact most people today still think of the world in Newtonian terms. That may not be the huge tragedy suggested by some.

Anyone seriously interested in science will soon discover that Newton has been eclipsed by events. Even so his contribution to science was enormous and giving some of the credit to others won't diminish that in the slightest. It should be noted for example that much work on the calculus was done by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Leibniz was in turn influenced by none other than Christiaan Huygens. So you see, science is never a one-man-show. Which brings us back to Robert Hooke.

By some accounts, Hooke was perhaps the single greatest experimental scientist of the seventeenth century. His interests knew no bounds. They ranged from physics and astronomy, to chemistry, biology, and geology as well as architecture and naval technology. He collaborated or corresponded with scientists as diverse as Christian Huygens, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and of course, Isaac Newton.

Let's look at some of his many accomplishments. He invented the universal joint, the iris diaphragm, and an early prototype of the respirator. He invented the anchor escapement and the balance spring, making more accurate clocks possible. He served as Chief Surveyor and helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. He worked out the correct theory of combustion. He devised an equation describing elasticity, known as "Hooke's Law", that is still used today.

He also assisted Robert Boyle in studying the physics of gases. He invented or improved meteorological instruments such as the barometer, anemometer, and hygrometer and so on. He was a true polymath, the type of scientist that was able to contribute findings of major importance in any field of science. These included important contributions to biology and to paleontology to name but a few.

It's obvious that Hooke deserves a little more recognition than he's been getting. I hope this little piece will contribute to that. We should not be surprised however, by the fact that history can play these "tricks". There's a well-known saying that "history is written by the victors." That is probably true. It is also true that we now possess a lot of knowledge that could set some of this right.

Should we bother? Perhaps not in any sense of redressing past omissions. It should however make us a little more skeptical. In our day-to-day existence we are often confronted by reports of this or that study for example that may or may not tell the whole story. In addition we are told by this "expert" or that, that the best solution for a given problem (usually the flavor of the month) is this and such.

I think we owe it to ourselves to question some of these pronouncements. Some of my favorites include the questionable suggestion that we can somehow "educate" malcontents to improve their behavior or that "all" crime is the result of poverty. If we never question these same tired panaceas things will probably never change. "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

1 "The more things change, the more they stay the same."


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