Bitter Rivals: Hooke vs. Newton

The long-lived resentment between two great scientists.

1

History is filled with rivalry. Be it between nations, companies, or sportsmen, rivalries exist wherever there is something to be gained. Science is no exception. Scientists have often disagreed with one another; multiple people have demanded recognition for the same theory or invention that they developed independently. Even Sir Isaac Newton, one of the greatest physicists of all time, was not free from rivalry. One of his rivals was none other than the Englishman Robert Hooke.

Who was Robert Hooke?

Robert Hooke was a brilliant scientist in his own right. Even though they were rivals, Hooke—unlike Newton whose scientific work focused on astronomy, mathematics, and physics—had a broad scope of achievements and interests that spanned far beyond the realm of astronomy and physics.

Hookes proposed that species undergo biological evolution about 200 years before Charles Darwin did.

Neil deGrasse Tyson called Hooke ‘perhaps the most inventive person that ever lived’ (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey). Hooke invented the compound microscope and used it to discover cells. He even created an improved telescope which he used to observe celestial bodies with great precision. He presented the law of elasticity, which was subsequently named after him (Hooke’s law), and developed the balance spring which created the first reliable watches.

 

                   
Lunar crater Hipparchus captured in one of Hooke’s drawings in Micrographia (left) and in a mosaic of pictures taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) (right)

He was also thought to be ahead of his time, when after studying fossils, he suggested that species could go extinct because of geological disasters. Furthermore, he proposed that species undergo biological evolution about two hundred years before Charles Darwin did.

Aside from being an inventor and scientific inquirer, Hooke was also one of the key architects tasked with redesigning London after the Great Fire of 1666. During this time, he was also a council member and the Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society (the English scientific society), the Professor of Geometry at Gresham College and the Surveyor of the City of London post-fire.

there is not a single surviving portrait of him from his lifetime.

Despite the accomplishments and status Hooke attained during his lifetime, history seems to have forgotten him—so much so that there is not a single surviving portrait of him from his lifetime.  We only have descriptions of him from his contemporaries who depict him as a rather unflattering, crooked man with a large, pale face. Historians believe that the reason for Hooke’s obscurity may have been the disputes he had with other scientists, most notable of whom was Newton.

The Beginning: 1672-1684

Hooke and Newton’s rivalry began in 1672 when Newton presented his first paper on optics to the Royal Society.  In his paper, he argued that light composed of particles and white light was made of the seven colours of the light spectrum. Many of the society’s fellows, including Hooke, disagreed with this theory. Hooke believed light was not made of particles but was a wave. He even compared the spread of light to that of water waves.

Ironically, both theories have now been proved.

Newton’s particle theory of light was accepted in the 18th century after the publication of his book Opticks. Hooke’s wave theory still contested it, with scientists leaning more heavily towards it in the 19th century, as certain phenomenon could not be proven by the particle theory. Ultimately, both theories were accepted after the advent of quantum physics in the 20th century. However, in 1672 with no conclusive evidence of either theory, the disagreement launched a rivalry that spanned a lifetime.

While Hooke was not the only one who disagreed, he was the one who instigated an attack on Newton. Newton fiercely defended his work and defiantly submitted his paper on optics to one of the Royal Society’s journals, Philosophical Transactions.

Philosophical Transactions − the world’s first science journal (Source: Youtube)

This did nothing to end the dispute and by March 1673, Newton threatened to leave the Royal Society but was persuaded by other members to not do so. Three years later, in 1676, Hooke once again insulted Newton by publicly accusing him of plagiarizing his work on light. The two men continued their rivalry by means of exchanging hostile letters for the next few years until Newton had a nervous breakdown in 1678 and decided to retire from public life altogether. He did, however, respond to letters but kept his correspondences short. During this time Hooke, on behalf of the Royal Society, sent letters to its members inquiring about their research and sent one to Newton as well. They discussed different hypotheses about planetary motion and the forces between them.

Enter Halley: 1684 – 1687

In January 1684, during a discussion on the forces that govern celestial bodies, astronomer Edmund Halley told Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren (a founding member of the Royal Society) that he believed the centripetal force between two celestial bodies was inversely proportional to the squares of the distances between them; however, he lacked proof. Hooke agreed with Halley, as he himself had suggested in his book Micrographia that celestial bodies experience mutual attractions which become stronger as the distance between them decreases. However, Hooke also claimed to have the proof that Halley sought. Wren apparently did not believe Hooke and offered to give books worth 40 shillings as a reward to whoever of the two was first to show a conclusive proof within the next two months.

Sadly, the prize was left unclaimed as Halley was occupied with domestic affairs and Hooke failed to deliver. Finally, Halley decided to visit Newton at Cambridge to see if he could provide the proof Hooke had failed to do so. Newton informed Halley that he had already calculated the values of planetary motion several years ago but seemed to have lost the papers. He at once began working on them again. Once Halley received proof of Newton’s work, he requested the Royal Society to publish Newton’s book. However, they did not have the funds to publish it because they spent their entire book budget on the unpopular History of Fish by Francis Willughby. Halley, however, was very eager to publish Newton’s work and decided to finance the work himself.

Newton was furious to hear that Hooke was taking direct credit for his work.

This work, published in three books, ended up being Newton’s most profound contribution titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (or Principia). It not only contained Newton’s universal law of gravitation but also the three laws of motion which laid the foundation for classical mechanics. However, in 1686, after Halley presented the first book to the Royal Society, Hooke claimed to the fellows that Newton originally got the idea of the inverse square law from him and the book would not have been possible if not for his input. While Newton had acknowledged Hooke and all the others who had their own ideas on gravitation in his notes, he was furious to hear that Hooke was taking direct credit for his work. He even threatened to withdraw publishing the final, most important book of the Principia. Upon Halley’s insistence, Newton agreed that a withdrawal would be foolish and later admitted that even if he had first heard of the inverse square law from Hooke, he was the one who presented conclusive mathematical proof for it which Hooke failed to provide.

Better of the Bitter Two?

With the publication of Principia, Newton’s reputation began to rise and once Hooke died in 1703, Newton was made the President of the Royal Society. During this time, the only existing portrait of Hooke was destroyed. Some believe Newton ordered it to be destroyed, though it is likely that it disappeared due to negligence.

once Hooke died, Newton was made the President of the Royal Society.

Throughout their rivalry, Newton not only resented Hooke for criticizing his work but also because as the curator of experiments, Hooke had far more resources at his disposal and a much higher status in the scientific community which made his attacks all the more hurtful.

Hooke on the other hand wished to get all the credit for his work. While Hooke’s contributions to science had been many, several of his works, such as his invention of the balance spring, were not novel and other people had also been working on them independently. Due to Hooke’s greed for credit, he often got into conflict with other scientists.

However, Newton, in spite of his groundbreaking discoveries and increasing popularity, was not much better. Due to his extreme intolerance of criticism and inability to work together, he also ran into several disputes with other scientists after Hooke’s death. He even abused his position as the President of the Royal Society as can be seen by his rivalries with German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and English astronomer John Flamsteed.

No one can deny that both Hooke and Newton were brilliant scientists who deserve the scientific community’s utmost respect for their contributions. However, they also had their shortcomings and resorted to petty rivalry. It goes to show that even people with the most brilliant minds are after all, human.

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.