The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part III. Into the Light

Chapter 48. Trouble with Mr. Hooke

If not for the Principia’s unsung hero, Edmond Halley, the world might never have seen Book III. At the time he was working to coax the Principia from Newton, Halley had no official standing to speak of. He was a minor official at the Royal Society—albeit a brilliant scientist—who had taken on the task of dealing with Newton because nobody else seemed to be paying attention. Despite its illustrious membership, the Royal Society periodically fell into confusion. This was such a period, with no one quite in charge and meetings often canceled.

So the task of shepherding along what would become one of the most important works in the history of science fell entirely to Halley. It was Halley who had to deal with the printers and help them navigate the impenetrable text and its countless abstruse diagrams, Halley who had to send page proofs to Newton for his approval, Halley who had to negotiate changes and corrections. Above all, it was Halley who had to keep his temperamental author content.

John Locke once observed that Newton was “a nice man to deal with”—“nice” in the seventeenth-century sense of “finicky”—which was true but considerably understated. Anyone dealing with Newton needed the delicate touch and elaborate caution of a man trying to disarm a bomb. Until he picked up the Principia from the printer and delivered the first copies to Newton, Halley never dared even for a moment to relax his guard.

On May 22, 1686, after Newton had already turned in Books I and II of his manuscript, Halley worked up his nerve and sent Newton a letter with unwelcome news. “There is one thing more I ought to informe you of,” he wrote, “viz, that Mr Hook has some pretensions upon the invention of ye rule of the decrease of Gravity. . . . He says you had the notion from him.” Halley tried to soften the blow by emphasizing the limits of Hooke’s claim. Hooke maintained that he had been the one to come up with the idea of an inverse-square law. He conceded that he had not seen the connection between inverse squares and elliptical orbits; that was Newton’s insight, alone. Even so, Halley wrote, “Mr Hook seems to expect you should make some mention of him.”

Instead, Newton went through the Principia page by page, diligently striking out Hooke’s name virtually every time he found it. “He has done nothing,” Newton snarled to Halley. Newton bemoaned his mistake in revealing his ideas and thereby opening himself up to attack. He should have known better. “Philosophy [i.e., science] is such an impertinently litigious Lady that a man had as good be engaged in Law suits as have to do with her,” he wrote. “I found it so formerly & now I no sooner come near her again but she gives me warning.”

The more Newton brooded, the angrier he grew. Crossing out Hooke’s name was too weak a response. Newton told Halley that he had decided not to publish Book III. Halley raced to soothe Newton. He could not do without Newton’s insights; the Royal Society could not; the learned world could not.

* * *

Newton could have dismissed the controversy with a gracious tip of the hat to Hooke, for Hooke had indeed done him a favor. In 1684, as we have seen, Halley had asked Newton a question about the inverse-square law, and Newton had immediately given him the answer.

The reason Newton knew the answer is that Hooke had written him a letter four years before that asked the identical question. What orbit would a planet follow if it were governed by an inverse-square law? “I doubt not but that by your excellent method you will easily find out what that Curve must be,” Hooke had written Newton, “and its proprietys [properties], and suggest a physicall Reason of this proportion.”

Newton had solved the problem then and put it away. He never replied to Hooke’s letter. This was perhaps inevitable, for Hooke and Newton had been feuding for years. Back in 1671, the Royal Society had heard rumors of a new kind of telescope, supposedly invented by a young Cambridge mathematician. The rumors were true. Newton had designed a telescope that measured a mere six inches but was more powerful than a conventional telescope six feet long. The Royal Society asked to see it, Newton sent it along, and the Society oohed and aahed.

Newton’s reputation was made. This was Newton’s first contact with the Royal Society, which at once invited him to join. He accepted. Only Hooke, until this new development England’s unchallenged authority on optics and lenses, refused to add his voice to the chorus of praise.

Even a better-natured man than Hooke might have bristled at all the attention paid to a newcomer (Hooke was seven years older than Newton), but Hooke was fully as proud and prickly as Newton himself. In 1671 Hooke was an established scientific figure; Newton was unknown. Hooke had spent a career crafting instruments like the telescopes that Newton’s new design had so dramatically surpassed; Newton’s main interests were in other areas altogether. And more trouble lay just ahead, though Hooke could not have anticipated it. In a letter to the Royal Society thanking them for taking such heed of his telescope, Newton added a tantalizing sentence. In the course of his “poore & solitary endeavours,” he had found something remarkable.

Within a month, Newton followed up his coup with the telescope by sending the Royal Society his groundbreaking paper on white light. The nature of light was another of Hooke’s particular interests. Once again, the outsider had barged into staked-out territory and put down his own marker. Deservedly proud of what he had found, Newton for once said so openly. His demonstration that white light was made up of all the colors was, Newton wrote, “the oddest, if not the most considerable detection, which has hitherto been made in the operation of nature.”

The paper, later hailed as one of the all-time landmarks in science, met with considerable resistance at first, from Hooke most of all. He had already done all of the same experiments, Hooke claimed, and, unlike Newton, he had interpreted them correctly. He said so, dismissively, lengthily, and unwisely. (It was at this point that Newton sent a letter to the hunchbacked Hooke with a mock-gracious passage about how Newton stood “on the shoulders of giants.”) Thirty years would pass—until 1704, the year following Hooke’s death—before the world would hear any more about Newton’s experiments on light.

Now, in 1686, with the first two books of the Principia in Halley’s hands, Hooke had popped up again. For Hooke to venture yet another criticism, this time directed against Newton’s crowning work, was a sin beyond forgiving. In Newton’s eyes Hooke had done nothing to contribute to a theory of gravitation. He had made a blind guess and not known how to follow it up. The challenge was not to suggest that an inverse-square law might be worth looking at, which anyone might have proposed, but to work out what the universe would look like if that law held.

Hooke had not even known how to get started, but he had airily dismissed Newton’s revelations as if they were no more than the working out of a few details that Hooke had been too busy for. “Now is not this very fine?” Newton snapped. “Mathematicians that find out, settle & do all the business must content themselves with being nothing but dry calculators & drudges & another that does nothing but pretend & grasp at all things must carry away all the invention. . . .”

Hooke was a true genius, far more than Salieri to Newton’s Mozart, but he did not come up to Newton’s level. Hooke’s misfortune was to share so many interests with a man fated to win every competition. That left both men trapped. Newton could not bear to be criticized, and Hooke could not bear to be outdone. The two men never did make peace. On the rare occasions when they found themselves thrown together, Hooke stalked out of the room. Newton was just as hostile. Even twenty years after Hooke’s death, Newton could not hear his name spoken without losing his temper.

During the many years when Hooke was a dominant figure at the Royal Society, Newton made a point of staying away. When Hooke finally died, in 1703, Newton immediately accepted the post of Royal Society president. At about the same time, the Royal Society moved to new quarters. In the course of the move the only known portrait of Hooke vanished.