Better than Newton

An article we wrote for the Big Issue, using material from our book Out of the Shadow of a Giant.


If you remember one thing from physics lessons in school, it ought to be Newton’s First Law of Motion, which says that any object that is not “at rest” moves in a straight line at a constant speed unless it feels an outside force. The truth of this law is familiar today from video of astronauts inside the International Space Station, or at a more local level in a game of air hockey. Clever old Newton. Snag is, he didn’t think of it. The first person to realise this fundamental law of Nature was Newton’s slightly older contemporary Robert Hooke. Hooke was also the first person to realise that gravity is a force of attraction in which everything in the Universe pulls on everything else – in particular, that the Sun pulls on the planets. Newton, until Hooke pointed this out to him, thought that the planets were carried around the Sun in eddies, like chips of wood in a whirlpool, by some mysterious cosmic fluid.

So how come we don’t talk about “Hooke’s First Law of Motion” and give him the credit he deserves as a pioneering physicist? Largely beacause Newton, who was a bit of a plagiarist and somewhat flexible with the truth, outlived Hooke, and wrote him out of history as far as he coiuld. When Newton became President of the Roylal Society, after Hooke died, the only known portrait of Robert Hooke mysteriously disappeared when the Society moved to new premises – the only picture to get lost in the move.

By minimising Hooke’s contribution to science, Newton also helped to encourage the impression that Hooke’s other activities were not particularly noteworthy. History tells us that Hooke played a part in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666, with most accounts implying that he was some kind of assistant to Christopher Wren. In fact, Hooke was essentially an equal partner in Wren’s architectural practice, and was personally responsible for laying out the streets after the fire and much of the rebuilding. About half of the “Wren” churches in London are actually Hooke’s work. And it was Hooke who discovered the technique which Wren used to make it possible to build the spectacular dome of St Paul’s.

Along the way, Hooke was a pioneering microscopist, and made a careful study of fossils, convincing himself that the Earth was much older than the religious authorities claimed, and very nearly coming up with the idea of evolution. Our book is an attempt to set the record straight, and bring his genius out from under the shadow of Newton. But, as we discovered, he was not alone in that shadow.

Edmond Halley is at least remembered, for the comet that bears his name (although he did not, contrary to widespread belief, discover that comet). But what else did he do? He carried out the first astronomical survey of the stars of the southern hemisphere, and commanded a King’s ship on the furthest voyage south up to that time, to the edge of the Antarctic pack ice, to survey the Earth’s magnetic field. “Commanded” is a key word here – Halley is still the only civilian ever to be given command of a Royal Navy vessel and crew. He was so successful that he later carried out undercover missions, details of which have never been revealed, in the English Channel and the Adriatic, making him a combination of Jack Aubrey and James Bond. He also proposed the idea of an expedition to measure a phenomenon known as a transit of Venus from the Pacific Ocean; this would happen after he was dead. The expedition was duly carried out under the command of James Cook, and after completing their astronomical observations Cook went on to discover New Zealand and make a landfall in southeastern Australia. The French reached New Zealand a little later. Without Halley’s suggestion, New Zealand would probably have become a French colony, and there might have been some squabbling over Australia.

When we set out to bring these remarkable men out from the shadow of the giant Newton, the question we had the back of our minds was whether science would have made the great leap forward it achieved in the seventeenth century if Newton had never lived. Our conclusion is that it wouldn’t have made much difference. Newton’s singular contribution was to pull a lot of ideas together in his famous book the Principia. But the ideas were “out there”, and even then, Halley suggested the idea of the book, and he both edited it and paid for its publication out of his own pocket. Without Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley, we would probably never have heard of Isaac Newton. Without Isaac Newton, we would have heard a lot more about Robert Hooke, in particular, and Edmond Halley.




3 comments on “Better than Newton

  1. realthog says:

    The book sounds fascinating. When’s it coming out in the US?

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