Friday, 13 January 2012

Standing on the shoulders of giants

With permission of the Institute of Physics
The seventeenth century physicist Robert Hooke has had something of a roller coaster ride of a history.

Although Hookes' law on the elasticity of springs has kept his name visible, he largely disappeared as a person in the glare of the spotlight placed on his indubitably great contemporary and rival Isaac Newton.

When Hooke re-emerged onto the world stage it became briefly fashionable to belittle Newton and big up Hooke's achievements. Now we have mostly got more of a balance. Hooke did do a remarkable amount in his own right. Yet the feud between Hooke and Newton was certainly not one-sided. In fact it started when Hooke dismissed Newton's paper on light and colour without even bothering to read it. And there is good evidence that Hooke had a tendency to claim other people's ideas as his own.

But there is no doubt that Hooke was a great experimenter, science populariser (his book of drawings of microscopic views is still stunning) and had some theoretical ideas that helped Newton immensely. For instance Hooke suggested using a pendulum to measure the acceleration due to gravity. And it was Hooke who realized that an object in orbit is freely falling towards the body it orbits, while at the same time moving sideways at the right speed to keep missing it. We know that Newton got this idea from Hooke because he wrote to Hooke that he had never heard of this hypothesis before. When the Principia was published, Hooke claimed that Newton had stolen his ideas, yet in letters between the two, it seems that Hooke had got as far as he could manage and was encouraging Newton to take his ideas further – something Newton certainly would.

Now the Insitute of Physics is celebrating Hooke's achievements in the rather imposing painting pictured here. It's an impressive work of imagination. Apparently the only known portrait of Hooke was destroyed in the early 1700s (possibly at Newton's instructions), so this image can only go on descriptions. We know Hooke had something of a hunched back and (in part as a result) did not come across as a particularly large man. It seems likely that when Newton quoted the remark in a letter to Hooke that if he had seen further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants, it was a bit of a dig, as Hooke was anything but a giant physically.

It's probably also worth saying that the artist, Rita Greer buys into the now largely discredited extreme view that Hooke's genius remains a surpressed fact thanks to Newton's hatred of him. She comments 'Robert Hooke, brilliant, ingenious seventeenth century scientist was brushed under the carpet of history by Sir Isaac Newton and his cronies. When he had his Tercentenary there wasn't a single memorial to him anywhere. I thought it disgraceful as Hooke did many wonderful things for science.' Note the emotive word 'cronies'.

But even though it's certainly not true that Hooke is regarded in a lowly fashion any more, it doesn't do us any harm to be reminded of this remarkable man. I find the idea of this being a portrait of Hooke when we don't really know what he looked like rather odd. It clearly isn't a portrait. But it is a powerful image to make us think about Hooke's achievements, and as such should be celebrated.

The portrait was hung yesterday at the Institute of Physics in London.

1 comment:

  1. There was an interesting documentary about Hooke on telly recently. Apparently, there used to be a stained glass window in a London church which depicted him, but it was destroyed during the Blitz.

    Newton and Hitler: Hooke sure could pick his enemies!