Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: “On the Shoulders of Giants” or, Revenge is a Dish Best Eaten Cold Edition.

On March 3, 1703, a very short giant died, and a greater one of average height may well have laughed to hear the news.

Robert Hooke has had the historical misfortune to have produced an extraordinary career that has been obscured over time — and in his own day too — by the still greater accomplishment of Isaac Newton. He compounded that ill luck by being something of an ass. His fate was sealed, at least in the intellectual politics of late 17th century London, by having chosen perhaps the worst person possible to annoy. Newton took offense easily, and nurtured his grievances indefinitely.

Hooke certainly offended; he seemed to have a gift for irritating Newton (and others, on occasion). Most famously, Hooke got himself written out of Principia. In his draft of what would become Book III (his “System of the World”), Newton had originally written that Hooke was one of those “more recent philosophers” whose work bore on the problem.

But then Hooke went public with his claim that he had given Newton the idea that gravity follows an inverse square law, though he admitted that Newton had done the mathematics to derive the curves that would result from an interaction between two objects obeying such a law. According to Edmond Halley, who was shepherding the book through publication, Hooke accordingly wanted an acknowledgment in Newton’s preface.

Newton went ape. (Sorry for the Darwinian anachroninsm. I just like the image.)

What made matters worse is that Hooke had in fact caught Newton out in a relatively minor error several years earlier in a calculation that involved the motion of an object under the influence of gravity. But Hooke was wrong in the larger case; Newton had all the priority he could wish for, in work that had its start more than a decade before that exchange — and more to the point, Newton had understood the implications and the mathematics of the inverse square relationship, and Hooke never had.

That Hooke had seemed to say that he had originated the idea, and Newton merely done the sums seems to have galled the great man the most: “Now is this not very fine? Mathematicians that find out, settl & do all the business must content themselves with being nothing but dry calcuaotres & drudges & anoher that oes nothing but pretend & grasp at all things must carry away all the invention…”

Halley was desperately afraid that his correspondent would grow skittish about publishing Principia at all — but by the time the dispute came to a head, the significance and power of the work had Newton in its grasp.

Instead, he took a more subtle form of sticking his shiv in the guts of his enemy. He scratched Hooke’s name out of the text — and then did his best to make sure Hooke would not be able to follow the crucial argument, the passages in the book where he treated celestial motion and the movement of the Earth’s tides.

Newton told his readers that he had originally written those parts of the book for a popular audience. But in the end, he said, he recast it “into the form of Propositions (in the mathematical way).” Why? Because, as Newton later wrote to a friend, he wanted “to avoid being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks.”

Little smatterers: Robert Hooke, short, pesky, and not a good enough mathematician to follow Newton’s lead.

This wasn’t the first time the two men had tangled, nor that Newton had insulted Hooke’s stature. They had first sparred over optical experiments, with Hooke criticizing the younger man’s first submissions to the Royal Society in the early 1670s. In his last letter to Hooke on the various issues involved, written in February 1676, Newton grandly acknowledged that Hooke had “added much in several ways,” to the science of light. And as for himself, “If I have seen futher iti s by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”

How sweet — but for that in that famously touchy age, the fact of Hooke’s modest height gave the conventional phrase a nasty edge both men could have recognized.

In those days, Newton was still a relative unknown. The publication of Principia in 1687 brought him almost immediately to the very top of English philosophical life. Hooke complained increasingly angrily about the alleged theft of ideas within Principia that had gained Newton such rewards, but no one listened. He was reduced to confiding to his diary that “Interest has noe conscience.”

The saddest part of this story, as this article describes, Hooke too was a genuinely great man, Hooke had accomplishments enough for any number of lives — he has been dubbed England’s Leonardo — and that’s only a little hyperbolic. But Newton’s were the greater, and by tying his hopes of lasting fame to the outcome of the battle he lost over Principia, Hooke made sure he died bitter.

And Newton? His revenge unfolded exquisitely, viciously.

Within months of Hooke’s death, he started assembling the manuscript for his second great book, Opticks, which contained, among much else, the fully worked out results of the experiments and their interpretations that he and Hooke had first argued about thirty years before. Newton had refused to publish those results as long as the man who had insulted the original effort remained above ground. As soon as Hooke was gone…out they poured.

That’s playing a long game.

Quotations taken from Richard Westfall, Subtle is the Lord, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Images: Flammarion Woodcut, Artist unknown. First published 1888. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Hooke’s image of a flea from Micrographia, 1664. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Explore posts in the same categories: astronomy, History, History of Science, Isaac Newton, Newtoniana, professoriat follies, scientific revolution, Uncategorized, unsportmanlike conduct

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9 Comments on “Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: “On the Shoulders of Giants” or, Revenge is a Dish Best Eaten Cold Edition.”


  1. […] Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: “On the Shoulders of Giants” or, Revenge is a Dish Best Eaten Co… An entertaining post on the rivalry between Newton and Hooke. […]


  2. […] is right there. I wrote a bit about Newton’s prosecution of his grudge against Robert Hooke here, and Newton certainly pressed without scruple the priority dispute with […]


  3. […] as the disciplines of natural philosophy and science themselves. The fireworks that erupted between Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla, and the life-long battle between inventors Edwin Armstrong and Lee […]


  4. […] made it really hard to read (seriously– he told a friend he wrote it in the form he did so as “to avoid being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks”) but for exactly the reasons Weinberg […]


  5. […] arduous to learn (critically– he informed a pal he wrote it within the type he did so as “to avoid being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks”) however for precisely the […]


  6. […] it unequivocally tough to review (seriously– he told a crony he wrote it in a form he did so as “to equivocate being baited by small Smatterers in Mathematicks”) yet for accurately a reasons […]


  7. […] one section that, in an early draft, gave some credit to Hooke, “to avoid being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks.” Students were again asked to analyze Newton’s comments with the additional context. They […]


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