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.

To view the original article, something I absolutely recommend, please visit-


The NASA conspiracy theorists are back, with reason.

Do you remember the time we landed a satellite on a comet? Pshh. That’s such old news! Space is in right now, I mean, not that it’s ever really been out, but it’s really in the game these days. Just last week, we ended up going to Jupiter, AND discovering a new planet in our own solar system! So casual.

This week too, the humans have continued their trend. Except this time, it felt very different.. probably because the two biggest stories that broke were super sketchy. Like seriously.

Firstly, China…

According to reports, China’s first space station might be in freefall. That means it could be crashing down to Earth while we speak (or as you read). Hmm..

The Tiangong-1 satellite launched in 2001 and was supposed to come back down to Earth in a controlled crash. But satellite trackers worldwide believe China has completely lost control of it, suggesting that the inevitable crash will be anything but “controlled.” Ahh China…

Secondly, NASA is being all quiet (and we want to know why)..

Then, approximately 5 days ago (12th July to be precise), NASA suddenly shut down the International Space Station’s Live Internet Feed when a mysterious object appeared to enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Here’s the video until the lines were severed.

As you correctly guessed, conspiracy theorists are having a field day on this one. Some freaking out, some merrily basking in their “I told you so…” sunlight. Some people think it was a UFO while others think it was a meteor. But best of all, we think it could be the Tiangong-1!

For all we know, this could just be a technical glitch. The details are, as we said, too sketchy to confirm anything, however, they are ideal for fun speculation. Have a go at it.

What do you think it could be? Be a kid, wake up your dormant adult imagination, and let us know in the comments. Meanwhile, keep exchanging books, sharing our content on social media (thank you so much), and we’ll keep bring your the good stuff.

Happy weekend everyone. www.getboocs.com


When they realized women were using sacks to make clothes for their kids, flour mills started using flowered fabric.

In times gone by, amidst widespread poverty, the flour mills realised that some women were using sacks to make clothes for their children. In response, the flour mills started using flowered fabric.

Quite a few women in and around the United States welcomed the use of this flowered fabric. Households everywhere began reusing this cloth by tearing it from the seam, and stitching it up again to make dish rags, diapers, and quite a lot more.

As the flowered fabric movement, let’s call it that, began to gain momentum, the cloth bag manufacturers began printing a large variety of designs, patterns, and colours on the fabric. The previously dull bags of off-white were transformed into colourful sacs, with patterns ranging from plain old ducks swimming about, to a collage of banjos, sombreros, and palm trees.

Banjos, Sombreros, and palm trees.
Banjos, Sombreros, and palm trees.
Four mills added funny, and bright patterns to their bags to make it more appealing to children.
Four mills added funny, and bright patterns to their bags to make it more appealing to children.
Flower patterns on a flour mill bag.
Flower patterns on a flour mill bag.

The fabric that was used to make the flour bags then wasn’t plastic-ey or rough on the skin. It was thick, and warm, making it ideal for tough, yet colourful looking clothes (and kids).

The manufacturers even gave instructions on how to remove the ink.
The manufacturers even gave instructions on how to remove the ink.

Over time, the popularity of these cloth bags from the flour mills began growing so much, it was estimated that around 3.5 million women and children were accustomed to wearing clothes made out of the flour bags by then. The movement was fueled by both ingenuity and scarcity (mother of all inventions eh?) as it flourished during the world war II period.

A family of 7, with children wearing the colourful patterns seen on flour bags.
A family of 7, with children wearing the colourful patterns seen on flour bags.

People back then certainly knew how to reuse, recycle, and not be wasteful. What happened to us? The answer: a crisis of abundance. Industrial processes grew more efficient due to micro specialisations.

Instead of a single person making an entire watch, twenty people worked on different aspects of the same, and this made the whole process much more efficient. A decade after World War II, suddenly we had more than we needed. Stitching flour bags into clothes was replaced by going to the shopping mall and buying them. Time became more valuable than money.

Today, this tradition of reusing flour bags has mostly died out with the exception of the Amish, who continue to make clothes by reusing their flour bags.

The flour mills were kind enough to help families in the United States make colourful clothes for children during a time of uncertainty.

Be a darling and share this blog post, and blast links to getboocs.com on Facebook, Twitter, and email so that others who love reading about books, news, economics, and a bunch of other interesting things, can get to know about our blog, and book sharing website – getboocs.com.

10 inspiring quotes of Tenzin Gyatso.

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Mr. Tenzin Gyatso, recently celebrated his 81st birthday at the Drepung Monastery in Karnataka, India. India being my home country, I decided it was time to look deeper into the words of wisdom of the Dalai Lama, and shed light on what it means to lead a happy life.

The Dalai Lama had humble beginnings. Growing up in northeastern Tibet, Tenzin was the son of a farmer. Although the man has received a Nobel Prize during his lifetime, he says his real accomplishments lie in helping other human beings.

Personally, I always wondered how buddhist monks could look so happy all the time, and I suppose the answer to the question is: help others. But don’t listen to me. I’m still finding my way in life. Listen to him.

The very purpose of our life is happiness, which is sustained by hope. We have no guarantee about the future, but we exist in the hope of something better. Hope means keeping going, thinking, ‘I can do this.’ It brings inner strength, self-confidence, the ability to do what you do honestly, truthfully and transparently. – via Facebook

Dalai Lama quote 1
Dalai Lama quote on GetBoocs

Many of our problems stem from attitudes like putting ourselves first at all costs. – via How to Practice: The Way to A Meaningful Life (book)

Dalai Lama Quote on GetBoocs
Dalai Lama Quote on GetBoocs

There are always problems to face, but it makes a difference if our minds are calmer. – via Twitter.

True compassion does not stem from the pleasure of feeling close to one person or another, but from the conviction that other people are just like me and want not to suffer but to be happy, and from a commitment to help them overcome what causes them to suffer. I must realize that I can help them suffer less. – My Spiritual Journey (book)

Merely thinking that compassion and reason and patience are good will not be enough to develop them. We must wait for difficulties to arise and then attempt to practice them. – “Compassion and The Individual” (book)

My personal favourite –


Sometimes things go wrong; that’s normal. But we have a saying in Tibet, “Nine times fail, nine times try again.” – via Twitter.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.


This planet is our only home; we are all responsible for taking care of it. I’m happy to see leaders now taking climate change seriously. – via Twitter.

Friendship doesn’t depend on fame, money or physical strength. It’s based on trust and trust depends on love and affection. – via Twitter.

I learned a lot about happiness, that volatile emotion, by reading about Mr. Tenzin Gyatso, his holiness. However, just reading about it won’t do me any good. In that effect, I’ve decided I will volunteer some time, maybe once a week, in helping others. I’ll try this for a month, and let you guys know the outcome. Did I feel happier? Was it worth it? Did I have fun? All of that and more, in a month’s time.

In the meanwhile, share this post, and links to getboocs.com so that others can find out about GetBoocs and sign up to share their books, creating a wider, and more trustworthy community. www.getboocs.com is the website.

Will the movie do the book justice?

The ongoing struggle of book lovers is, is the movie going to do the book justice? Often times is doesn’t, leaving us disappointed and wondering why we even bothered seeing the movie.

Now, I’ve thought about this struggle for the past few days when I was trying to figure out what I was going to write about. All this thinking leads me to the conclusion that they have some pretty decent reasons for deviating from the book. Well most of the time.

Lets look at The Giver, by Lois Lowry. The book is great and I’ve read it three times, which made me SO excited for the movie. The movie was good too but totally different from the book, the only thing they have in common is the major plot points. I watched the movie after reading the book for the third time to refresh my memory and compare the two. And I can tell you that the changes they made in the movie where for a good reason, they made the story more exciting and compelling. The book is actually quite dull all though compelling in its own right.

There are so many other movies based on books that I’ve seen where I have read the book before seeing the movie. Not all of them have been as different as The Giver, but they’ve had their small differences all of which didn’t really change the story much, well not that I can remember anyway.

For example, in Paper Towns, a book by John Green, Margo and Quinton sneak into Seaworld, but this was left out of the movie to prevent a backlash from anti-Seaworld activists and rightly so. I will admit I did kinda miss that scene in the movie but I understand why it was left out and the overall feel of the movie was the same as the book.

I think a lot of the time the changes that are made in movies that make them different from their source material, whether those changes are big or small are done for a reason. Either because the changes speed things up, or make the story more exciting, or make the story appropriate for a wider audience. Sometimes I do get mad other times, I honestly don’t notice.

But I think the real struggle with the whole book vs. movie debate is that when we read the book we create our version of the world in the book and when we go see the movie we are looking at someone else’s version of that world and they never seem to match up quite right.  I think that this is a battle we may never win for there are too many variables to get right for any of us to be happy.

– Written by Felicity “the book and movie blogger aka FillyCity” Demetriou. Check out her YouTube channel. It’s got all kinds of good stuff.