Portrait of Robert Hooke

Was Robert Hooke really the greatest asshole in the history of science?

This post was originally written on io9. It is a beyond-superb overview into the controversy surrounding Robert Hooke. More attributions towards the end of the article.

Robert Hooke discovered the cell, established experimentation as crucial to scientific research, and did pioneering work in optics, gravitation, paleontology, architecture, and more. Yet history dismissed and forgot him… all because he pissed off Isaac Newton, probably the most revered scientist who ever lived.

This seventeenth century polymath, who has been called the English answer to Leonardo da Vinci, almost disappeared from history entirely after his death in 1703, as even the only known painting of him was unceremoniously destroyed. It took over two centuries for his reputation to recover and his myriad accomplishments to be properly celebrated. He’s a cautionary tale for just how dangerous it can be to find yourself on the wrong side of history.

Hooke’s Beginnings

Born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight off England’s southern coast, Robert Hooke was, like seemingly so many giants of England’s scientific revolution, originally destined for the priesthood. But his tremendous mechanical aptitude took him to an apprenticeship in London, and then onto the prestigious Westminster School, and then finally onto Oxford. This was the 1650s, when England was under the dictatorial rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, whose Puritanical outlook conflicted with the growing interest in Francis Bacon’s ideas of the scientific method and empirical research.

At Oxford, Hooke met other future luminaries like Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren. Their mentor was a natural philosopher named John Wilkins (I’m assuming no relation), an ardent royalist who sought to protect scientific knowledge and methods from Cromwell’s Protectorate. The meetings of like-minded individuals that Wilkins organized were thought to be a crucial forerunner of the Royal Society, which would be founded by the restored King Charles II in 1660.

Hooke’s mechanical brilliance and noted eye for observation made him the perfect choice to perform experiments on behalf of the newly formed Royal Society. However, he was not the leader of these efforts — that honor fell instead to Robert Boyle, and Hooke was his assistant. By all accounts, the two were close friends who held high regard for each other, but this was arguably the beginning of a long pattern of Hooke never quite getting the credit he deserved.

While Boyle was a brilliant scientist with an almost fanatical devotion to empiricism, it was Hooke who had the mechanical and mathematical genius to put these ideas into action, and it’s still an open question how much credit Hooke deserves for some of Boyle’s greatest breakthroughs. For forty years, Hooke served as Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, which made him responsible both for designing his own empirical investigations and testing the theories being developed by his peers.

Hooke’s Science

Hooke wasn’t simply important to science in the 17th century — he was downright omnipresent. His most lasting contributions probably came in the field of biology. It was he who coined the term “cell” to describe the individual units making up larger organisms, a name he took from the living quarters of monks. His 1665 book Micrographia was probably the first science best-seller in history, sparking huge public interest in the still nascent science of microscopes. Hooke provided a series of illustrations for his book, some of which remain recognizable to this day.

But Micrographia, like Hooke’s work in general, was about far more than microscopes. He did extensive work in astronomy, both in describing celestial phenomena and calculating the distances of far distant objects. He came up with a theory that light was in fact a wave, an idea that after much evolution would eventually form part of 20th century particle physics and quantum theory. His work on elasticity led not only to his very own Hooke’s Law, which deals with the relationship between the stress and strain on a spring, but also to the development of a balance spring that made the first truly reliable timepieces and watches possible.

Some of his ideas were particularly ahead of their time. His microscopic analysis of petrified wood led him to conclude that these and other fossils were, in fact, the remains of once living things. His investigations led him to the thought that these didn’t just represent ancient examples of living species — some might well be remains of species that no longer existed. Hooke thought that extinction of species might be possible if a sufficiently serious geological disaster happened. This idea didn’t gain much contemporary support, likely because the extinction of species was thought to fly in the face of the theological notion of a perfect natural world created by God.

Hooke’s Enemies

So then, if Hooke made so many contributions — and, judging by the huge success of Micrographia, was recognized and celebrated in his day for these achievements — why did he slip into obscurity? The sheer quantity of his contributions might have been part of the problem. He had lots of ideas and theories, and he wanted credit for all of them. That’s understandable enough, really, but the problem was that other scientists kept claiming they had come up with the same ideas long before he did.

His work with elasticity and watches is a good case in point. It’s thought that Hooke made his big theoretical breakthroughs on elasticity around 1660, and at some point after that demonstrated how a spring could be used in the manufacture of watches that kept time with unprecedented accuracy. But at nearly the exact same time, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (pictured on the left) came up with nearly the exact same invention. Worse, both men wanted to be given credit for their big new idea.

The debate over who deserves the credit has lasted for centuries, and it’s only with the recent discovery of some of Hooke’s handwritten notes, which speak of a watch demonstration in 1670, that most scholarly support has shifted his way. But such evidence wasn’t of much use in the 17th century, as both Hooke and Huygens were bitterly committed to proving their priority and were both completely convinced they were in the right. It didn’t help that Hooke had at one point tried to commercialize his invention and failed to secure the necessary funds, which left him even more determined to secure intellectual mastery of his ideas, even if he couldn’t make money off of them.

The Rivalry with Newton

It’s an old cliche that history is written by the winners, and there was perhaps no greater winner in the entire history of science than Isaac Newton. His monumental work on gravitation and calculus made him a legend in his own day, and a demigod after, and in the ensuing 400 years only Albert Einstein has really rivaled him in the popular imagination. You can probably guess how he got on with Robert Hooke.

It’s generally agreed that the problem began with gravitation. It’s tempting to think of the laws of gravity springing from Newton’s head fully formed, that Newtonian mechanics were truly Newton’s and Newton’s alone. But scientists had already been slowly moving for years towards gravity from their old notions of “aether” as the explanation for the attraction of different celestial bodies before Newton’s Principia was published in 1686.

Robert Hooke was a particularly important link in this chain. By the 1670s, he had espoused his belief that the Sun and the planets were attracted to each other, and this attraction grew as they got nearer to each other. He considered the idea of the inverse square law to describe the relationship between the distance of celestial bodies and their gravitational attraction. More than any other scientist before Newton, Hooke seems to have argued for gravity as a universal force, but his articulation was more a basic idea than a full-fledged theory. With Principia, Netwon provided the latter.

The War for Gravitation

Hooke’s experimental temperament let him down here. It was all well and good to throw around ideas and design an experiment or two to demonstrate them, but a theory of gravity would need rigorous mathematical analysis and proof. For all his talents, Hooke wasn’t really equipped to do that, whereas Newton was one of the most brilliant theorists who ever lived, not to mention a gifted experimenter in his own right. But Hooke was convinced that Newton would not have come up with inverse square law without Hooke’s input. It was an assertion Newton bitterly disputed — and one that sealed Hooke’s fate.

Newton was willing to acknowledge that Hooke was one of several forerunners in his work on gravitation, but that was about as far as he was willing to go. In Newton’s reckoning, Hooke had at best served as a minor, indirect influence on his own work. As Newton explained to his friend Edmond Halley, Hooke had indeed written him about gravitation around 1680, but these letters contained no helpful insights — instead, they had made it clear to Newton how little his peers like Hooke really knew, and how important it was for him to resume his own research.

In one of the great quirks of historical irony, the most popular quote attributed to Newton — “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” — might actually have been the mother of all passive-aggressive swipes at Robert Hooke. While it’s generally viewed as an eloquent demonstration of scientific humility on Newton’s part, the quote comes from a 1676 letter to Hooke, at a point where the pair were already arguing over proper credit for some work in optics. Hooke was commonly described as very short, even hunchbacked, and one theory is that Newton’s mention of “giants” was his way of saying Hooke had no influence on his work. It’s a fascinating to think that such an iconic, seemingly inspiring quote could have such petty, personal origins, but of course it’s totally impossible to prove either way.

Erased From History

To pick a fight with Isaac Newton (pictured below) was one thing, but Robert Hooke made one other huge mistake: He died twenty-four years before Newton did. In 1703, the year of Hooke’s death, Newton became the President of the Royal Society. It was during Newton’s presidency that the only known portrait of Hooke was destroyed — the portrait you see up top is a new work by artist Rita Greer that is based on what few contemporary descriptions of the man survive. The more salacious version of the story says that Newton intentionally had the painting burned, though it’s possible he simply let it be lost or destroyed when the Royal Society moved headquarters.

For the next two hundred years, Hooke became something like the hideous ogre of the Scientific Revolution. Writing just two years after Hooke’s death, his biographer Richard Waller declared him a despicable man, a miserable bastard who jealously guarded ideas he had probably stolen anyway. As Newton emerged as a demigod in the history of physics, Hooke became the opposing boogeyman, a vain misanthrope determined to tear down the greatest scientist who ever lived and steal all the credit for himself.

These were obviously exaggerations, but what gave them power was the fact that there was some truth to them. While Hooke was probably right in his credit dispute with Christaan Huygens, it’s harder to justify his arguments against Newton, and his reputation for quarreling over scientific credit was well-deserved. It’s also thought that Hooke, as the Royal Society’s Curator of Experiments, freely borrowed some of the ideas sent to him to be tested without worrying overly about proper attribution.

It wouldn’t be until the 20th century, when Hooke’s personal diary surfaced and historians of science became less committed to deifying Newton, that Hooke and his accomplishments were rescued from the dustbin of history. The picture that emerges is a complicated one. While he was unquestionably a brilliant scientist, Hooke could be his own worst enemy when it came to securing his own place in history. Part of that was his proclivity for picking fights with other scientists, but another big part of it was precisely how he approached science.

The Leonardo Problem

In his excellent 2005 biography of Hooke, historian of science Allan Chapman dubbed Hooke England’s Leonardo. And while Hooke’s influence on contemporary science far outstripped Leonardo’s, it’s still a fitting epitaph to bestow — more so than any other figure of the Royal Society and England’s nascent scientific revolution, Hooke embodied the Renaissance man ideal we associate with Leonardo da Vinci. Robert Boyle was the father of modern chemistry, Christopher Wren revolutionized architecture, Isaac Newton was the physicist — but Hooke, he did it all. And that might actually be part of why it was so easy to erase his legacy from history.

Let’s think about Leonardo for a moment. We now know him as the polymath to end all polymaths, a man who excelled in engineering, anatomy, cartography, botany, geology, music, and a dozen more subjects. And yet little of this was known in his lifetime — Leonardo kept most of his scientific work to himself — and even less of it was properly appreciated, considering his designs for things like helicopters and tanks were impossibly ahead of their time. His design for an “aerial screw” was brilliant, yes, but it was a dead end that didn’t influence the later development of actual helicopters.

What won Leonardo his immortality was his paintings, which made him famous in his own lifetime and secured his place as one of the Renaissance’s greatest artists. It was only in subsequent centuries that the full extent of his genius became known, and his reputation expanded to that of the ultimate Renaissance man. Without those paintings as the centerpiece, it’s possible that Leonardo would be less an icon than a footnote, that forgotten, eccentric genius who came up with helicopters and plate tectonics but didn’t really have much impact.

Robert Hooke really was England’s Leonardo — except without the painting. Hooke was a genius who did extensive work in dozens of different scientific fields, but that packed schedule arguably worked against him. He came up with lots of ideas, but he kept moving from one breakthrough to another, seldom slowing down enough to work them up into full-fledged theories. This left the door open for other scientists — often working entirely independently — to focus on a particular area and deliver a magnum opus that could secure their place in history. The breadth of Hooke’s work was truly staggering, but it perhaps lacked the depth in any single area that would have made his reputation unassailable.

That’s probably why, even though Hooke is no longer science’s greatest asshole, he still hasn’t really received the renown that all his contributions deserve. In that sense, he’s not just a reminder of the dangers of making enemies of living legends. He’s also an example of why history doesn’t remember people simply based on merit — it also helps to provide a juicy, well, hook, a singular achievement everyone can remember. On second thought, maybe the title of “science’s greatest asshole” wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

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