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Theorist versus experimentalist, round one

Hooke’s masterpiece

By Hamish Johnston

Most physicists are either theorists, who solve problems using mathematics, or experimentalists who make measurements. While the two disciplines are intertwined (except perhaps in fields such as cosmology, where measurements are difficult to make) the two tend to operate in very different ways — which can sometimes lead to tension.

When did this distinction (and occasional animosity) arise in modern science, you might wonder?

One early example is the considerable friction between the greatest theorist and experimentalist of the English Enlightenment — Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke respectively.

Newton remains a celebrity to this day. However, Hooke’s considerable contributions to science (and architecture) remain mostly unsung — with the possible exception of his spring law.

On Thursday evening BBC 4 aired a programme called Robert Hooke: Victim of Genius, which tries to set the record straight. For some reason, the BBC has not made it available for viewing online, so you will have to wait for a repeat.

I came to the conclusion that many of Hooke’s problems were related to his humble beginnings — or more precisely, the fact that Hooke began as an apprentice painter, paid his way through university working as a servant to fellow students, and then earned his living by building scientific equipment for the Royal Society.

When this lowly chap informed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics that he had formulated the inverse square law of gravitation years before the publication of Principia, Newton is said to have flown into a rage. The two had already sparred over their optical theories, and when Newton took over as president of the Royal Society in 1703 (the year of Hooke’s death), he began erasing all traces of Hooke. Famously, he tossed the only contemporary portrait of Hooke onto a fire.

It would be disingenuous to describe Hooke as a man of modest means — he made a fortune surveying London after the Great Fire — and he was a colleague of many great scientists of the day including Robert Boyle, Edmund Halley and John Flamsteed. Who apparently made liberal use of Hooke’s intellect and experimental skills, sometimes without giving due credit.

However, Hooke was a man who got his hands dirty building wonderful machines such as vacuum pumps and telescopes. He was also a skilled artist — consider the sketches in his masterpiece Micrographia (above).

In other words he was an experimentalist, and history of physics tends to remember the theorists.

The BBC programme was presented by Oxford’s Allan Chapman, and you can read his essay
England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and the art of experiment in Restoration England on a website dedicated to Robert Hooke that has been set up by Westminster School.

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  1. In November 1679, Hooke initiated an exchange of
    letters that bore on the question of planetary motion. Although Newton hastily broke off the correspondence, Hooke’s letters provided a conceptual link between central attraction and a force falling off with the square of distance. Sometime in early 1680, Newton appears to have quietly drawn his own conclusions.”
    Hooke thought of deducing Kepler’s laws out of the inverse square law a well before Newton and communicated his idea in a letters to him. We learn then that the inverse square law can be traced back, through Boulliau, Kepler, Roger Bacon, to the above mentioned Architecture of Vitruvius. The Hellenistic sources were thus forgotten by a kind of “double censorship” mechanism: first by Newton himself and second by his followers, who never published those of his works which could make clear his dependence on them. Voltaire’s invention of the tale of Newton’s apple put the final seal to the matter.

  2. Ender

    Newton is an excellent example that bright people aren’t necessarily good people.

  3. John Duffield

    It isn’t quite so black and white, Hamish. Newton was an experimentalist too. Think prisms and telecopes, and what people think of as alchemy. IMHO the latter is associated with his Opticks query 30 “Are not gross bodies and light convertible into one another?” which rather anticipates pair production. He was engaged in all sorts of battles with his contemporaries, and Hooke was his arch rival, see for a better short biography. The history of physics tends to remember the winners, not just the theorists. And it tends to sweep all the battles and the infighting under the carpet. It also sweeps other things under the carpet too, such as Newton’s explanation of how gravity works, and the way his corpuscles relate to Einstein’s “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”. Yes, it’s a shame that Hooke isn’t better remembered, but I think the same can be said of Newton. IMHO in the fullness of time we will all better appreciate just how great he was.

  4. Amer

    Anecdotally: I believe Hooke was also quite diminutive in size and it is thought by some that Newton’s famous quote about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ was a calculated insult against Hooke.

  5. TomF

    I’m just reading ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’, and the initial biog sections highlight plenty you could consider experimental: distending his own eyeballs to observe colour effects; documenting chemical interactions in his backroom alchemy experiments; insisting on remeasuring everything feasible rather than trusting the work of others.
    Not his primary contribution perhaps, but he doesn’t seem like a pure theorist either. Perhaps the lesson we should draw is that history remembers those who burn their rival’s paintings?


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