Archive for the ‘scientific revolution’ category

Sighting: Newton and the Counterfeiter Second Review

May 2, 2009

A few days ago I had happy occasion to tout the first review of my upcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter. (Pre-order at Amazon, or if you prefer Barnes and Noble, or perhaps Target (!) …(who knew? Amazon serves as the back office, I believe) and last in this list but first in my heart, any local bookstore.)

Well, the second prepublication notice is in, this time from Library Journal, and while perhaps not quite as quotable as the first, it is, within the brief of that publication, very nice indeed:

Michael D. Cramer – Library Journal

If your ideas about Isaac Newton revolve around him watching apples falling from trees, writing the Principia, and living the life of a Cambridge don, MIT science professor Levenson’s (Einstein in Berlin) book will surprise you. A towering figure in science, Newton also had a passing interest in alchemy, but few people know that he also tracked down counterfeiters as Warden of the Mint and, later, Master of the Mint. Levenson focuses primarily on these years in which Newton outwitted, entrapped, and convicted master counterfeiter William Chaloner. Levenson also details how Newton improved the mint’s operation and handled the incredible recoinage of the 1690s that completely replaced the silver coinage in use as England stood on the brink of becoming a world power and developing what we would recognize as the modern banking system. Highly recommended for all collections, required for history of science collections.

As the last post anticipated the publication date of the review in Kirkus, which we’ve now passed I only quoted that one.  Full text below the fold.

Both of these early notices are of that peculiar variety known as the long-lead reviews, aimed at parts of the trade.  For those of you not in the professional side of reading — either selling or buying as part of your job — that ‘s why these are so laconic.  The form calls for a summary and swift judgment in a paragraph or so, aimed at readers who need to sift through notable fraction of the 80,000 170,000 or so books published in the US each year.  What is so pleasing about these from where I sit (on tenterhooks — waiting for the reaction that really matters, those of readers putting down their own nickels for the work) is that the opinions expressed are unequivocal, however brief.

Image:  Unknown Dutch master, “Still Life with Books.


On the Origin of Science Writing: Joseph Priestley/Isaac Newton edition

January 6, 2009

Sunday over at Daily Kos, Devilstower had a very nice review of Steven Johnson’s new biography of Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air. The review did its job — make me go out and get the book.

That said, Devilstower made one claim that I think dramatically overstates Priestley’s accomplishments — while diminishing the real history of the democratizing spread of scientific thinking that significantly preceded Priestley, and continues today.  Devilstower wrote:

He was the author of what was probably the first popular book on science. Not the first science book, there had been many of those, but the first popular science book. What’s the difference? As an example, Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica had been out for several decades before Priestley began writing, but as the title suggests, Newton chose to write his book in Latin, not English, and crafted a text both intentionally dense and painfully difficult. Despite the revolutionary wealth of information in Newton’s book, only the most advanced scholars could pry lose its secrets. Priestley broke with this scholarly tradition and wrote his works in English, being careful to explain enough background to address a general audience. Rather than go through the elaborate mental gymnastics that Newton presented, Priestley laid his work bare on the page.

The problem with this is that it is just not true.  By 1768, when Priestley published a popularized version of his more technical History and Present State of Electricity, the notion of writing about nature in the vernacular had been on the rise for the better part of two centuries at least.

The breakthrough to writing in the living language spoken by more than the scholarly and clerical elite actually came first in Italy during the Renaissance.  Think Petrarch, and his sonnets; Machiavelli with Il Principe — The Prince; Dante, of course, with the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso — and for our purposes here, that somewhat later figure Galileo Galilei, who risked Papal wrath for the double sin of countenancing the Copernican view of the heavens and saying so in Italian.  That this was understood to be a popular work, i.e. one for lay audiences, can be seen by clicking that link — it leads to the 1661 translation, “Inglished from the original Italian copy by Thomas Salusbury.”

There you have a crucial work of popular science available to Italian readers in 1632, and to Priestley’s great-grandparents a generation later.

In that gap, you can find a bit of the broader historical processes creating not just the knowledge required to write about science, but the possibility of doing so for a broad audience.

For example:  you can’t have a popular literature without the means of getting words on paper cheaply enough to attract the punters.  That took time:  for example, England lacked any mills making white paper, suitable for printing at the beginning of the seventeenth century.  (There was some production of brown paper for wrapping and packaging.)  By mid-century, as Isaac Newton was just heading off to grammar school, there were still just two mills in the entire country making the high-quality stuff (thanks to James Gleick’s fine brief life Isaac Newton for that fact and the heads-up to the larger story).  Paper for printing was almost exclusively imported, and was very expensive — 24 sheets of the good stuff cost a day’s wages for a laborer.

This is one of the reasons books were expensive, print runs small, and great care was taken not to get lumbered with copies of works that lacked a market.  That is, to the mystery of why Shakespeare’s First Folio came so late — in 1623  seven years after its author’s death — and with what seems like a small print run, though at the time it was a very considerable edition at around 1,000 copies, part of the answer is that those involved needed to be sure that the market for a large and hence costly book was actually there.

But by the latter half of the 1600s, and especially towards the end of the century, paper was much more generally available, printing technology had spread, and a popular and even a kind of tabloid media could take form.  In that context you find, if not the first, then certainly some of the earliest popular science writing in English, with the most notable early example coming from Newton’s antagonist, Robert Hooke, and his landmark Micrographia, published in 1665.

As much as anything Joseph Priestley ever wrote, Hooke’s extraordinary work offers a social as well as an intellectual portrait of the time.  He wrote it for a general audience; he wrote it to make money; he wrote it out of origins as a poor member of the educated class, made good by his own efforts, his skill, and his capacity to attract the patronage especially of Robert Boyle.

There is social mobility there, technological change, and a new culture forming in the emergence of a public both interested enough and with enough surplus cash to purchase a pricey, lavishly illustrated work about nature.

And then there is the case of Newton himself, calumnied by Devilstower for “elaborate mental gymnastics” of which Priestley is supposed to have been free.  But there is this problem:  Newton was not trying to write a popular text in the Principia, just as Priestley was not in his larger work on electricity.  Newton was presenting new results to a community of colleagues in the form in which its claims could be understood, assessed and tested — that is, in the emerging language of mathematics.

That was the point:  this was a new approach to science and Newton laid out his work to make both his results and his methods available to the audience that could make use of it.  That he was attempting to persuade his fellow natural philosophers, and not the public at large should no more be held against him than should Einstein’s framing of general relativity in exceptionally sophisticated mathematical form (for physicists at the time).

Of course, Einstein went on to write the popular text Relativity, still in print, still a valuable introduction to both the special and general theories.  It is perhaps less well known that Newton  took pains to make available to a broader public the qualitative content of his ideas.

For example, in the famous letters he wrote to the divine, Richard Bentley, to help him prepare the first series of Boyle lectures, he sought to explain his theories in order, as he wrote   (I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so don’t sue me) to enhance faith in and wonder at the works of the divine.  He took pains to explain to Bentley how, in his view, his theory of gravity  did just that, reaching through his correspondent to the public audience that would encounter his lectures.

Most important, in the context of Devilstower’s view of Priestley’s role in creating a place for the broad mass of men and women in the scientific enterprise, in contrast to Newton’s supposed scholarly elitism, Newton himself more than Principia, and his other great book on scientific topics, The Opticks, was published in 1704 — in English.

I can’t say that the book is  a glorious ornament to English prose style, but it’s readable, it’s there, and it contains critical ideas not just about experiments that Newton had performed in his youth, but (in later editions) about how science itself works, how the interplay of experiment and reasoning produce results.

Last, beyond Newton himself, Newtonianism was a big enterprise throughout Europe both during and after Newton’s lifetime.  Mordechai Feingold’s catalogue The Newtonian Moment captures the explosion of popularizations of Newton’s work that followed with striking speed after the admittedly dense Principia.

All this is not to say that Priestley was not important.  Of course he was, both as a scientist and as a democratizing writer about science for a broad audience.  I’m really arguing just two points here.

The first, more minor, is just a defense of the value of historical knowledge.  The past is a much more fine grained place than one in which Priestley, born in 1733, confronts Isaac Newton, born in 1642, across an empty field.  The notion that science was the province of the Latinate elite until it was suddenly set free is false — and does real violence to a much more important understanding, my second point: the issue of the public understanding of science is something that has been a significant battleground for centuries.

We are fighting it still, of course, and to the extent that we are making progress, it is as the heirs of a tradition formed not just by one or another hero, but by centuries of effort by the famous and the much more modest alike.

Images:  “Dr. Phlogiston” — anti Priestley cartoon c. 1780-90.

William Blake, “Isaac Newton,” 1795.

Joseph Wright, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump,” 1768. Note that this painting, depicting a scientific demonstration as a recognized form of respectable entertainment for an unequivocally non-expert audience dates from the same year as Priestley’s foray into science popularization.  Image source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

Breaking News: Copernicus Unearthed

November 21, 2008

Forgive the headline; I could not resist.

Via the Nature group’s blog The Great Beyond comes notice that remains have been found of the man who can be seen as having fired the first shot of the scientific revolution (and to have put human beings in their place).  The blog reports:

A skull from Frombork cathedral in Poland has been identified as that of revolutionary astronomer Copernicus.

Marie Allen, of Uppsala University, says DNA from the skull is a match for DNA from hairs found in books owned by Copernicus, whose book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium started the movement to viewing the sun – rather than the Earth – as the centre of the solar system.

“The two strands of hair found in the book have the same genome sequence as the tooth from the skull and a bone from Frombork,” she says (AFP).

See this article from The Guardian for more details.

I love this story, not least for the connection of books to a kind of immortality:  we make and leave parts of ourselves in every book we read.

This is a big, big deal for anyone who likes to think about how the way we think now took form.  Tim F.of Balloon Juice sent notice of this story to me, and for him, it is the connection of Copernicus to Galileo that has the most resonance; Galileo’s defense of a sun – centered cosmos in the face of official Catholic rejection of Copernicus’s idea marks for many the birth of the modern sensibility, the assertion of the authority of experience over revelation.

I think that’s right — or at least, that seeing in and around Galileo one of the major steps towards the modern idea of science is certainly on target.  But Copernicus himself holds my attention here.  It is almost impossible to state how significant his combination of insight and rigor was in creating a Copernican “party” amongst the learned of Europe.

It was that impact that gave both license and direction to the ongoing and expanding European inquiry into nature, an effort that over the next 150 years became a scientific transformation so total that there was not going back.

There is one best place to trace how that which I am misleadingly calling a party took form. It comes courtesy of the near-legendary Harvard historian of science Owen Gingrich, who has carried on a decades long love affair with Copernicus and his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

I owe Owen thanks for help he gave me early in the process of writing my Newton book– and for a happy afternoon in his unbelievably book-crammed office, looking over facsimile editions of Copernicus to puzzle out the meaning of a diagram or two. (That is– he was puzzling them out and I was holding his coat.)

But I owe him a greater debt of gratitude for his The Book Nobody Read, his tale, part memoir, part brilliant intellectual history, of tracking down every extant example of the first and second editions of De revolutionibus… and analyzing who wrote what marginal notes in each copy.  In doing so, he reconstructs the path Copernicus’s ideas took through the learned of Europe.  It’s a great read, a great glimpse of what it means to have a revolution in ideas at the level of individual thinking, feeling human beings exhilarated by a new thought.

(My own encounter with Owen’s book led me to grab the opportunity that came when I visited the Newton scholar Scott Mandelbrote at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.  Scott is or was at the time the man in charge of Peterhouse’s library, which owns a first edition of De revolutionibus. At lunch the day we met the topic of Copernicus came up, so he incredibly kindly took me into the library and pulled that treasure off the shelf for me to pick up and turn the pages.

It may be an odd passion, but I can’t describe how thrilling it was to pick up an almost five hundred year old book — such a little thing — that set off so many fireworks.  It is, by the way, a beautiful book just from the point of view of the printer’s art.  In particular, the woodcut drawings are truly elegant:  they possess a sharp, precise line that still has the quality of an individual craftsman’s gesture; there are sweeps to the curves, and slight deepening or widening of the stroke that gives emphasis to the diagrams.  They literally don’t make ’em like that anymore.)

Images:  Teothor de Bry, copperplate portrait of Nicholas Copernicus, 1598.

Nicholas Copernicus, diagram of the heliocentric system from De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging (Monday edition): Isaac solves the subprime mess.

March 24, 2008

We are in a mess. How bad is it? I don’t know — but when the Fed et al. race to make sure that the most significant housing lenders in this country are less fiscally sound than they were last week, all to pump some extra dollars into the mortgage market, you know it ain’t good.

What to do? Why, suggests Tim over at Balloon Juice, let’s get the right man for the job:

Isaac Newton, of course.

Tim was joking, I think, but in fact Newton would be a more appropriate choice than just about any other physicist I could name. England in the late seventeenth century experienced a financial revolution as well as its more famous scientific one. Newton took part in both.

For example — he was among the great and the good whose advice was sought on what to do about the disappearance of England’s silver coinage in 1695 — along with such luminaries as John Locke, Charles Davenant and Christopher Wren.

Then, beginning the next year, first as Warden and then Master of the Royal Mint, he became a significant, if not the dominant player in the transformation of England’s money system from a silver to a de-facto gold denominated pound.

More to Tim’s point, Isaac Newton took up his role in England’s nascent financial bureaucracy at a time of wild, uncontrolled, truly exuberant financial engineering. This was a time when the English government’s attempts to fund a wildly expensive overseas military adventure (the Nine Years War) stretched to include licensing the issue of tickets that were at once (a) high-interest bonds (what might later be known as junk), backed by a stream of government tax revenue on malt, the key raw ingredient in making beer;* (b) entries in a lottery, offering chances to win up to a 1,000 pounds against a ten pound ticket; and (c) paper money.

As another excessively premature plug — I cover all this in my book on Newton as a currency cop, coming out early next year. But for now the point is that Newton was not only present while all this happened. He was in fact a fairly senior civil servant working for a government struggling to figure out how to fund and foster a transforming economy. He was a pretty smart guy too, I hear, and he thought in some detail about questions of credit, government control, and probity in financial dealings.

He came to a lot of quite sensible conclusions about the new paper instruments, and the proper role of debt and credit: “If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work..the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.” Keynes forshadowed, anyone?

And then there is this: “Tis mere opinion that sets a value upon money; we value it because with it we can purchase all sorts of commodities and the same opinion sets a like value upon paper security….All the difference is…that the value of the former is more universal than that of the latter.”**

Interest is certainly heading low enough for the advantages of American export trade. (evanescing dollar, anyone? I’m only complaining as one who just had to wire a fee for a researcher in London). We still have a way to go to set the poor on work, but at least Newton had that as one of his priorities, which is more than I can say for some, on the evidence. And certainly, the interesting times (in the Chinese sense) we are living in confirms the truth of the observation of the relationship of opinion and value.

But even though Newton could see what many others could not about the essentially abstract nature of money, he was not entirely immune to the confusion — or perhaps to baseline human desires — triggered by half-comprehended new notions of finance. His first investment in the South Sea Company paid off, when he sold on the rise.

But even though there could have been no other man in England better placed to grasp the mathematical implications of the unfolding scheme — he still bought back into the madness of the bubble year, 1720.

He lost, by his heirs’ estimate, some 20,000 pounds — a prodigious sum, a fortune.*** It’s hard to gauge what that means across such gaps of time, but using the Parliamentary research service’s estimate of inflation across that time, a rough guesstimate leads to the conclusion that the smartest man in Europe blew the modern equivalent of better than three million pounds on a “greater fool” dynamic of what had become, in the end, a fairly straight forward pump-and-dump stock fraud.

Newton had succumbed to greed, or perhaps the simple impetus of the common mania — but which ever it was, it still overcame both his capacity to think quantitatively (Newton!) and any prudential impulse. After all, he was rich already. He didn’t need to risk much to gain much: when he died, seven years after the bubble year, he still left a fortune of 30,000 pounds, not counting his land in Lincolnshire.

The moral of the story: This is why you need to regulate financial markets. No one, not even the cleverest, is immune to all the familiar temptations of money in flux. No wise man remains wise always; one of the most reliable inducers of folly is the possibility of gains that seem to repeal financial laws of gravity. Rules that are no respecters of persons are there to save even the Isaac Newtons among us from themselves.

*More crucial than you might think given that weak beer was the staple fluid in a society where the water supply looked like this.

**Both quotes taken from Newton’s Mint papers, and published in G. Findlay Shirras and John Craig, “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency,” in Economic History. Subscription required.

***It’s not quite clear from the record exactly what Newton lost in the bubble. The suggestion is that he lost an investment of 20,000 pounds, but this seems unlikely, given what is known about Newton’s income throughout his career. More likely, and the more popular interpretation among Newton scholars, is that Newton converted into South Sea stock debt instruments with a total, long term future value at that rather grand number. In other words, he didn’t lose tens of thousands in cold cash; rather, he gave up income that could have added up to very satisfying amounts over time. Still a lot of money, but not the stunning out-of-pocket disaster the raw number implies.

Images: Quentin Massys, “Der Goldwäger und seine Frau,” 1591. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

South Sea Bubble Card, 1720. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: How Mean Was He?

March 21, 2008

March 22, 1699 offered Londoners one of their favorite entertainments: execution day, the carnival held at the foot of the hanging tree.

The pageant actually begun at Newgate Jail (Gaol, for any British/Commonwealth readers). There, at the edge of the old city of London, after church, and efforts by the chaplain to get the condemned men to repent and forgive, the convoy headed west for the execution ground at Tyburn, where the Marble Arch now stands.

Crowds as large as 100,000 would gather for the fun, passing gin to favored convicts as they rolled by, cheering or jeering bravery and cowardice at the foot of the gallows, thrilling to the beat of the hangman’s dance as dying men jerked and twitched on the rope. (Trapdoor gallows would not come into use until 1760, and even then it took a bit of experience to get the height of the drop just right — far enough to break someone’s neck, not so far as to decapitate them.)

On this particular March day, one of the men to be hanged was a coiner named William Chaloner, who had been convicted of counterfeiting the King’s coins earlier in the month, a crime classified as High Treason. The man who brought him to his last moments on the hanging tree — along three dozen or so others over the years — was Isaac Newton, then serving as Warden of the Royal Mint.

My next book, most likely to be titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (Harcourt/Faber 2009) will trace the quite remarkable story of the cat and mouse game Newton and Chaloner played. The story as I’ve found it sheds a lot of light on how Newton thought, what he was trying to do — not just as a civil servant, but as a natural philosopher, someone trying to make sense of the world of experience — and what he felt, what motivated him. There’s a lot of the times as well as the lives in my account — what it was like to live through an enormously transformative period, not just in science, but in pretty much everything to do with daily life. I’m telling a true crime story, in other words, but a lot more.

That terribly premature plug aside (the book won’t be out until early next year), the question for this post is did Newton take pleasure in the deaths he triggered?

That’s not my question, originally.  Some Newton biographers, most notably Frank Manuel in his psychology – drenched book A Portrait of Isaac Newton, saw Newton as a deeply damaged person. Manuel argued that Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters to the gallows was a crucial psychological release, a transference of perceived guilt from his deformed psyche onto an external figure.

Manuel writes “In the Mint Newton was gratified with the exercise of naked power over fellow creatures. …With such avenues available to him, he never again sufffered a psychic breakdown like the one of 1693. He no longer needed to beat his head against the bars of his inner consciousness. There were other human beings upon whom he could vent his wrath.” And later: “At the Mint he could hurt and kill without doing violence to his scrupuolous puritan conscience. The blood of the coiners and cliperrs nourished him.”

To which I say, with respect (for I value Manuel’s Newton scholarship highly): nonsense, ahistorical, anachronistic nonsense.

Newton certainly was a good hater — Manuel 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 Leibniz.

And it is true that Newton could be violent, at least in thought.  Consider the transgression he listed among his sins in 1662:

Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne
them and the house over them

This confession is, in fact, one of the pieces of evidence Manuel uses to build his picture of an Isaac Newton so scarred by his miserable childhood that he became the blood-drinking monstrous adult described above.

But while it is certainly true that Newton had a lonely, and at least at times an angry childhood, it is too great a leap of logic to posit the connection to grown up psychopathology, or even a connection between what appears to ahve been a bout of depression in 1693 with a murderous streak judicially indulged.

Why? Because within the actual context of criminal justice in London in the late seventeenth century, Newton was a perfectly unexceptional agent of the state. He was more effective than many – not surprisingly. He was Isaac Newton! He knew how to do empirical research. He had spent years weighing evidence for his physical claims. He was incorruptible. He had been given a job to do, and he did it — no surprise there.

And as for bringing men (and a few women)* to their deaths: Isaac Newton did not invent the bloody code. He did not refine the miseries that Newgate and its turnkeys inflicted on the residents there. He did not, in fact, pursue a true horde of coiners to their deaths; many were reprieved — after providing him with enough information about bigger fish to earn their way out of jeopardy — or with or without his connivance were convicted of lesser offenses, and spared the gallows.

That is: Manuel and those who have since picked up on the notion of Newton as a damaged man, have allowed their modern revulsion at the severity of seventeenth century criminal justice to blind them to the fact that Newton’s prosecutions were normal acts in his time, obligatory, in fact. Once he accepted his post at the Mint, it became his duty — as his superiors at the Treasury reminded him — to pursue counterfeiters with all the energy he could command.

Did those he convicted die hard? Certainly. But seen as part of the historical landscape in which he lived, Newton’s moral culpability for their sufferings is roughly equivalent to that of the hammer for the nail’s pain.

*Women convicted of high treason faced an even grimmer fate than men. Out of respect for female modesty (or simply to block the prurient male gaze) it was considered unacceptable to feed the crowd the spectacle of a woman jerking at the end of a rope in a mockery of an erotic spasm. The solution: burn them, when convicted of either high or petty treason — high for crimes against the monarch, low for crimes against constituted authority, including the murder of one’s marital superior, a husband.

In practice, most of those condemned to burn were killed by strangulation before the fire was lit. The last time a woman was truly burnt to death judicially in England came in 1685, when Elizabeth Gaunt was done to death for her part in the politically over-hyped Rye House Plot against the Stuart monarchy. The last use of the stake in England came in 1789. Then, Catherine Murphy, a coiner was led past the hanging bodies of several men hanged that day, including that of her husband, convicted for the same counterfeiting scheme for which she faced death. She was led up to a low wooden platform, and bound to the stake . The executioner placed bundles of straw around her, but then, he tied around her neck a rope fixed to an iron ring at the top of the stake. The platform was pulled out from under her feet, and there she dangled. The executioner waited half an hour before lighting the pyre. bound tied to be hanged before having her body stood up at the stake, and set on fire.

The Sheriff of London, Sir Benjamin Hammett, officiated at Murphy’s execution. The next year, he led the successful effort in Parliament to end the practice of execution. He pointed out that he was himself technically guilty of a crime, like all Sheriffs for the previous fifty years, for he and they had all failed to follow the letter of the law in carrying out the immolation of convicted female traitors. The law mandating the gallows for female coiners passed in spring, 1790.

Images: José de Ribera, “Martyrdom of Phillipus,” 1639. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Diepold Schilling “A Witch is Burned at Willisau, 1447” 1513. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

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

March 7, 2008

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

The Carbon Crisis, 1663 edition

January 19, 2008

Well, not really. But in this post over at Carbon Nation, Eric Roston, author of the forthcoming The Carbon Age, writes kindly about my first book, Ice Time, published way back in 1987. He uses that work as a stepping stone to describe some of the pre-history of climate research, linking to a review of 19th century attempts to measure atmospheric carbon.

To extend Eric’s time line, I dug into some of the notes and found the reference to what I believe is the birth of systematic meteorology in the English speaking world. In 1663, Robert Boyle suggested that Robert Hooke, then the fledgling Royal Society’s curator of experiments, start keeping a daily record of London’s weather.

Hooke responded with enormous energy, inventing or improving the basic suite of meteorological inventions — the thermometer, the barometer, rain and wind gauges and other, more specialized devices. He used them to make reliable, standardized measurements in London, and then realized that if he could persuade others to do the same, a picture of a national climate, and not just local weather would emerge. So he published in the proceedings of the Royal Society what amounted to a call to arms, asking the gentlemen of England to rise from their beds and take up their thermometers.

Which they did — most notably, John Locke, rather more famous for other works. Locke’s far-too-exciting political life killed the project after a few months in the 1660s. But beginning in December, 1691, now safely returned from his Dutch exile, he took it up again, making meticulous, daily measurements of the weather afflicting the Essex manor to which he had more or less retired. His weather records ultimately appeared as part of the nation’s stock of knowledge in in 1704 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

My favorite detail from this story of the birth of a science: Locke used a thermometer made by the celebrated watchmaker Thomas Tompion. Tompion has his own place in the history of standards as the first craftsman known to have used serial numbers to keep track of his productions.

Reading that over, I realize that this may seem like inside baseball. But I love this stuff — after all, someone had to start tracking their work in this way. And it turns out that we know who did.

Image: Thomas Wyke, “Thames Frost Fair,” 1683-4. Source: Wikipedia Commons.