Sunday 24 March 2024

Hooke Vs Newton

This is the first post of the Month. In truth, I have been preoccupied with my wife's health issues, although I have been working on several essays and assorted detritus that require the veneer of editing before I allow them to take root upon my blogging platform. I'm hoping that these works will reach fruition within the next couple of days, unless they don't.

The Two Protagonists- Spot the Spakka

The 17th century was truly a time of scientific wonderment and where the polymath reigned supreme. The rise of men of profound intellect who had the audacity and drive to dabble and excel in numerous subjects of scientific, philosophical and mathematical interest. The intellectual 'Greats' of the time were true scientific pioneers. These men eschewed the cloying restrictions of Christian scholasticism, which had choked intellectual progress for over a millennium. The shackles were rent asunder, and scientific progress burst forth, unrestrained by ecclesiastic nonsense. No longer could a man of intellectual acuity lose his reputation or life for revealing nature's wonders, wonders that were arbitrarily deemed contrary to stolid Catholic dogma. And throughout this scientific wonderment strode Newton. A man whose intellect embraced all, a man of no limits, a man who is remembered by all. But what about Robert Hooke, Newton's slightly older contemporary? More about Hooke in a while.

For Context....

There is little doubt that Newton's achievements were prodigious. Indeed, it is worth mentioning these scientific achievements to gain a perspective of the man's true genius. Newton's breathtaking work in the realm of physics includes formulating the laws of motion. Although others had made important contributions in this regard, it was Newton who finally formalised the theories in a rigorous mathematical form. In his book 'Optics', Newton revealed his revelations concerning light and, due to his work involving reflection, developed a theory that light was made of tiny particles he called corpuscles. He also invented the reflecting telescope containing a concave mirror. Up to then, all telescopes were made with lenses and refracted light to achieve magnification- chromatic aberration akimbo! Not only did he 'invent' calculus (don't tell Leibnitz), but he also founded and contributed to other areas in mathematics, too many to list here. Of course, Newton is widely known for his formulation of 'Universal Gravity, ' a concept that would hold sway until Einstein came forth with 'Relativity'. By the way, Gravity is Latin for Weight. There is no doubt that Newton's book, 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy' is considered one of the most influential science tomes ever written.

Now, a word about Robert Hooke.

Although Robert Hooke was an undoubted polymath and genius, he is less well remembered today. Perhaps Newton's Greatness overshadowed all.    

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight. He showed early mastery in a variety of subjects and, in 1653, secured a place at Oxford University, where he received his Master of Arts degree in 1662. He was a sickly child and man and not comely to the eye. His back was bent (scoliosis), and he was graced with a large head with bulging eyes. This is very reminiscent of Marty Feldman's portrayal of Igor (pronounced Eyegor) in the wonderful film, 'Young Frankenstein', made in 1974 and directed by Mel Brookes—go see. 

Here is a brief exposition of Hooke's achievements. He was the first to describe the law of elasticity using springs as his experimental medium (Hooke's Law). This had great practical applications as it paved the way for the production of a compact circular spring, an important step in the production of a portable timepiece. You can't take a pendulum clock on board a ship and accurate timekeeping was essential in determining longitude at sea. Hooke improved the primitive microscopes of the age and made important discoveries in biology, which he published in the beautifully self-illustrated book, 'Micrographia'.  It was he who discovered and coined the name 'Cell'.  Although Hooke was involved in elucidating the fundamentals of the 'Laws of Gravity', Newton pipped him at the post when it came to the primacy of the theory. Newton was able to provide a more rigorous and mathematical rendition of the phenomenon. On observing light refraction, Hooke determined that light must be propagated by a wave in contradiction to Newton's particle theory. Hooke's experiments involving air laid the groundwork for others to make seminal discoveries in this field and beyond. But Hooke was not only a scientist in the physical and biological sciences; he was also an architect, geologist and astronomer of note.    

Not only was the 17th century a time of 'Great Minds' twas also a time of great egos. I've discussed the controversy between Newton and Leibnitz concerning the 'discovery' of calculus elsewhere in this blog. Newton, in particular, it seems was a prickly, introspective and disputatious genius and locked intellects with others, including Hooke. Hooke was not a nice man if his diary is to be believed. It is said that he possessed an abrasive and unpleasant demeanour. The two men did not get along. Hooke felt that he did not receive the degree of recognition he deserved for his contribution to the theory of gravity. These prominent men could not avoid each other in the closed social circles that men of their class associated. Their mutual animosity was not only founded upon impersonal scientific matters it also extended to differences in personality and temperament.        

When discussing 17th-century science, Isaac Newton will always take precedence in any list of scientists who contributed to science's advances, achievements, and breakthroughs. Newton was a superlative genius in a century of profound geniuses (or is it genii?). That said, the addition of Hooke within this canon is not arbitrary; if Newton was king, then Hooke was undoubtedly the first in line to the throne. Although I'm sure that Hooke would have bristled at the thought that his intellect was surpassed by another.

We are apt to forget the singular and profound importance of the 17th century as a modernising influence on the men of intellectual quality who subsequently changed the world. Most of our modern science is based on and follows upon 17th discoveries. Perhaps of more importance is the change in the temper/timbre/tempo of mind that occurred. Nothing in the past could compare, and it remains with us today as a thoroughly modern scientific mindset. What a legacy! The importance of this intellectual revolution is worth stressing, especially because of its rapidity in societal terms: in the year of our Lord, 1600, the mindset of educated men was medieval; in 1700, the mindset was thoroughly modern. The England of 1600 witnessed witchcraft trials; this would have been unthinkable 99 years later. In addition, humankind had been humbled. No longer was our insular little bubble the centre of the universe. Everything had to be reevaluated in terms of our utter insignificance. Nuff said.


  1. Lovely post once more, man. Not much left to add. Eventually of some interest, that outstanding scientists like them had not been enabled to do what they did without the epistemological achievements before by rationalist René Descartes (to whom Newton dedicated his "Principia" with fine reason) and empirist Francis Bacon (mentioned by yours short time ago). Funny enough, that until today nobody found out what the "magical" gravity is caused by (sure there are several theories, but none really convincing). Ah... not to forget the red spot on Jupiter, that we all would miss bady if not discovered those days by bright Eyegor Hooke. (yeah... and Marty Feldman is a giant...)

  2. In the preface of Richard. S. Westfall’s biography of Newton Never at rest which I bought in 1980 (the kindle version is a bit more manageable, but a serious – and fascinating – read, 900+ pages.

    “The more I have studied him, the more Newton has receded from me. It has been my privilege at various times to know a number of brilliant men, men whom I acknowledge without hesitation to be my intellectual superiors. I have never, however, met one against whom I was unwilling to measure myself, so that it seemed reasonable to say that I was half as able as the person in question, or a third or a fourth, but in every case a finite fraction. The end result of my study of Newton has served to convince me that with him there is no measure. He has become for me wholly other, one of the tiny handful of supreme geniuses who have shaped the categories of the human intellect, a man not finally reducible to the criteria by which we comprehend our fellow beings."

    I would take the liberty of assuming that the supreme geniuses Westfall refers to are scientists. I would posit that religious gurus, political demagogues, conquerors and emperors more often constrain the human intellect than expand it. While such people can have profound influence on societies, and perhaps morality, I’m not convinced they are necessarily good for the human intellect.

    I would exclude writers, philosophers and musicians from this, but as these are not my really my fields I’ll not speculate further.

    Supreme genius, against which a run of the mill genius is - well – just ordinary. What a truly remarkable concept. But what else could Newton be?

    Without Newton, without calculus (which was not his only contribution, and I’m aware of Leibnitz of course) would we have practical science and engineering today?

    So who are the others? Darwin/Wallace spring to mind, and Einstein of course. But if the bar is “shaping categories of the human intellect” it not easy!

    Faraday and Maxwell?

    It would make a fascinating thread.

    Hooke was a genius without a doubt and “England’s Leonardo” has been woefully neglected: Scientist (the worlds first paid professional researcher it should be noted), experimenter, teacher, inventor, engineer, architect, surveyor……

    But he wasn’t a mathematician. And as you point out, he could not really rigorously prove any of his scientific speculations (which speculations were truly his first we may never know, but in his own mind certainly) or turn them into coherent tools. He had to watch others – Newton above all – do that. And for a man like Hooke having to see a man like Newton (for all his transcendent genius, he must have been a royal pain in life. And in his life, his genius was certainly apparent, but the truly transcendent nature posterity had yet to assign it) take precedence must have been galling to put it mildly!

    We can study the papers, records, diaries and opinions of those around at the time but what has been lost. What did they truly think of each other?

    How I would have liked to have met both. And in this alternate reality, I suspect I would have come down for Hooke. He was definitely the more personable and doubtless far better company. Newton’s personality flaw were legion – although his nervous breakdown of 1693 perhaps can be attributed in part by his secret alchemy. Samples of his hair remain and do contain rather excessive levels of mercury. Remarkable that he did recover and lived to 85! – something else his extraordinary genius transcended.

  3. The word 'genius' is used so often today that it begins to lose its currency. John Lennon, for instance, was a genius—no, not really. He was a good songwriter with luck. Interestingly, old Newton wrote more about alchemy and religion than he did about science. I wrote about this some time ago. I think it was called the 'Last Alchemist'.

  4. He did indeed, well over twice as much

    Newton was fanatically religious but he was a unitarian, he did not believe in the holy trinity. This was a dark secret he kept throughout his life as exposure would have gotten him into serious trouble, and even execution might have been possible.

    He also believed that secrets of the universe could be discerned from the dimensions and layout of the temple of Solomon, and were hidden in bible verses. He had dozens of bibles in different languages and he went through them all with a fine tooth comb.

    Ditto alchemy to a degree, his obsession with which he had to keep hidden as well. Alchemy was not something that could be studied openly (too many charlatans over the preceding centuries with too many princes and potentates having been taken to the cleaners – and what would happen if somebody actually could make gold?) and explains a lot of the arcane language. Alchemists were “chosen” adepts and somebody like Newton likely thought himself an “adept” by right.

    Newton’s alchemical interests have been rediscovered in the last few years and are being brought – via youtube and the like – to the wider audience. I think it’s quite reasonable to consider him “the last alchemist”, he studied it to see what parts of it – if any – fitted into god’s grand plan.

    An aspect of his alchemy which is seldom touched on is that his studies were rigorous. He applied his awesome intellectual and investigative powers to the full, but he could include nothing of it into his grand scheme.

    After Newton, it really did retreat into mysticism and arcana where it remains to this day (but it’s a fascinating window into thought as it was though – check out Adam McLeans alchemy website. There is just something about the imagery of alchemy which is compelling).

    We tend to look at Newton as the great rationalist, which, of course, he was not. A few years ago, an atheist group (I can’t recall which one) of the rather smug and boorish type (I say this as an atheist) had a Christmas card entitled “reason’s greetings” which I believe, carried a picture of Newton.

    “Let Newton be, and all was light!”

    Difficult to argue with that, but the man himself was a product of his times. I can’t help wondering what else he might have achieved if he actually had been how many like to imagine him now.

    Science and mathematics were probably no more than a third of his studies!

    And I also wonder what could have been achieved if he had managed to get on better with Hooke. If his supreme genius could have combined with Hooke’s extraordinary inventiveness and mechanical/experimental aptitude (Newton was no slouch in this himself but imagine if he could have actively guided Hooke).

    We’ll never know alas.

    1. Try the philosophers, Mark. You´ll be delighted. Just as mentioned, guys like Descartes, Spinoza, Bacon, Hume, Kant... prepared the ground, the fundament of thinking. Especially the epistemologists are the real giants outstanding scientists can do what has to be done while standing on their shoulders. Usually they are brilliant mathematicans as well. Thinking of Thales of Miletos and his famous sentence abot the 90 degree-angle in the periphery of a semicircle (400 b.c). Or Descartes, who wrote a book about his brandnew own invention how to solve geomatric equations algebraically when he was just: 17 years old!! (this highschool teenager´s book was taken immiadetly in use at Oxford, Cambridge and Sorbonne). Plato, Ockham, Peirce, Husserl, Sartre, Glasersfeld ... they errected the walls of the aquarium any thoughts of all other thinking disciplines (sciences, arts, politics, economy, jurisprudence, psycology, engineering, astronomy ....) are swimming in.

    2. Indeed I must!

      My formal educational was heavily biased towards scientific/technical, but my interests range much further.

      I’ve always had an interest in the history of science, engineering and technology and one of my things is collecting old engineering books (reprints rather than the originals of course).

      I was born in 1960, and if you were look around you in 1960, pretty well everything you could see was designed and built with the aid of little more than slide rules and 7 figure log tables. The contrast between “old” engineering and “new” has always fascinated me and I may well write about it some day.

      But as my 40+ year career as a professional engineer draws to a close, thoughts of what to do when it finally ends in a few years has been an issue for the last few years.

      Education is the obvious route – relatively low cost and not requiring of any great physical exertion – and the philosophy of science and philosophy generally sounds ideal.

      I did consider psychology. Seeing the diseased minds ruining the world, a certain curiosity as to why they are so sparked interest but thinking about it a bit more it would probably make me more depressed.

      Yes the good things rather than the bad.

      Much obliged for the suggestion!

    3. Pleasure... it´s worth.
      first - the ancient Greek word Philosophie translated into English means: "to love wisdom". How can one not?

      second - anyone who despises philosophy in the assumption that it may have nothing to do with one´s (everyday) life, can also despise the sun, because the moon shines at night and during day there is light in anyway.

      third - philosophy is the queen/sublime to all science and other thinking disciplines.

      fourth - epistemology (the science about how we gain knockledge) is the most puzzling of the 5 basic philosophical disciplines, such as metaphysics, logic, ontology, phenomenology. So Bacon, Hobbes, (Mr. Enlightenment) Hume, Locke from the Isle & continental Descartes and Spinoza are a pretty good beginning (well Thales, Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle too).

      fith - yeah, that fun is for free.