JF Ptak Science Books Post 1097
Had there been no Newton every school child would know the name of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) in its place—he was polymathic, totally energized, big-thinking non-sleeping experimentalist and theoretician who worked across numerous disciplines (physics and astronomy, to chemistry, biology, and geology, to naval technology), not the least of which was architecture (having helped Christopher Wren in the design of the new St. Paul’s). Hooke was a superb instrumentalist and inventor who also (for the most part) introduced humanity to the previously-unseen microscopic world (in his gorgeous and revolutionary Micrographia1..) .He was an enormous figure who was also never below a fight or argument, and whose grasp of his own very considerable accomplishments never seemed to be limited by what he had actually done in spite of his own tremendous and prodigious output. Some people lay the blame for Hooke’s obscurity upon Newton’s great and tireless vindictiveness against Hooke, but that’s by far from the whole story of Hooke’s troublesome personal legacy. Not only is his portrait not on the coin of the realm (like Newton's) nor hanging everywhere in the halls of academia, but there is no known lifetime surviving portrait of the man, and the exact location of his burying place is not known. He came a little close to Newton’s enormity, and in the absence of Jupiter and Saturn even the Earth starts to look a little bit big.among the rest of the planets.
In addition to high genius and a man largely responsible for keeping together (and moving forward) the Royal Society, Hooke was also a hypochondriacal, meanish, semi-miser prone to receiving insults real or imagined, always very well aware of his place in history of of history's possible sleights against him, and also prone to vindictive attack if the mood moved him. Newton too could be as sharp as sand in the eye, but he survived as a person, and Hooke sorta didn't. I'm not sure why, really, he seems so mostly-forgotten nowadays, priggishly envious idea-appropriating vindictive Despicable Me character or not--his swath of accomplishments was wide and deep as almost anyone else coming out of Britain for 200 years, which should be enough to send a lot of the historical personal detritus into the lost memory bin...but it doesn't, or something else, but popular history just doesn't work for the man.
Stephen Inwood's The Forgotten Genius recalls the 1673 letter that Robert Hooke wrote to the Council of the Royal Society, complaining of a new wrinkle in his ever-wrinkling private life: the garden that had been just outside his rooms had been converted into a "coaching inn and stables", meaning that there were mounds of festering summertime horse poop within nostrils' reach. He wrote to the Council that he needed a new accommodation, to "free himselfe from sitting as he now doth in the suffocating stink of the stables hors dung and Jakes [privy], which hath bin a great cause of his late illness". [The portrait is supposed to be that of Hooke, which is fine by me--I like this one. It shows a very thin man under the wig and bulky clothing, clear blue eyes, tight mouth, translucent skins, surrounded by the implements and directions of his thought, not the least of which is the night sky over the sitter's shoulder.]
The changes were agreed to, but not quickly, and it was still December 1673 or so that Hooke got his hands on Johannes Hevelius' new Machina Coelestis, a book which contained what Hooke saw to be germinal flaws, fatal flaws to the advancement of astronomy--and of course varied affronts to his own innovations in astronomical instrumentation--but which were preventable. By him. Hooke had it within himself to attack anything or anyone, and so it came to be Hevelius' turn, monumental stature or not. (Newton's turn would come soon after.)
Now there is only contrived evidence that the horse dung and suffocating stink threw Hooke over the edge--but I do like the idea of this being the case, and though probably no real historian would go this way, I like to think that it was this High Stink that helped Hooke in his large attack upon Hevelius. Of course Hooke needed no pushing or prodding from outside sources, even if those outside sources were already sort of within him. But I do like the image of his pen and razor-sharp mind fueled by the poop mounds and privies.
I can imagine his knuckles turning an easy white as he read the book that charged against his superior optical method of sighting instrumentation for astronomical work, Hevelius clinging to some methods of the 16th century. They fought, of course, and for the most part it was a lonely (if correct) fight by Hooke, his possible benefactors and allies at the Royal Society turning out not to be so given personality clashes and such. But I can imagine the Hevelius, and the knuckles, and the wrongness of it all, all brewing in the stank of late summer swelter of horse dung mounds, filling Hooke's nostrils and wigs and everything else with a rage for a rage that already existed.
And here's a line I won't very often get to use to close anything out: the poop couldn't've hurt..
1. The 28-year old Hooke published the results in a gorgeous and revolutionary book, Micrographia (a lovely e-text edition appears at Gutenberg, here) in 1665, which became an instant best seller and highly praised and valued. (Samuel Pepys, perhaps among the shiniest stars whose imprimatur was like a royal blessing, said the book (was) "the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.") There is no telling what the people of the mid-17th century thought of seeing such incredible discoveries in the little semi-invisible stuff that made up their normal, daily lives. The only thing that somewhat equates to this would be if the first images of the Hubble were those of Earth-bound objects whose detail had previously been unknown. Hooke’s observations and drawings of things like the common flea were just an astonishment—that such a creature of “low order” could have such intricate detail and design was a complete revelation. The drawings of the fly's eye, too, was an inescapable wonder, an incredible object to consider as having any detail pre-microscope, and then revealed to have unimaginable design and elegance.