STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

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“DR.SIR,—-There is nothing which I desire to avoyde in matters of philosophy more than contention, nor any kind of contention more than one in print; and, therefore, I most gladly embrace your proposal of a private correspondence. What`s done before many witnesses is seldom without some further concerns than that for truth; but what passes between friends in private, usually deserves the name of consultation rather than contention; and so I hope it will prove between you and me……..If you please to reserve your sentiments of it for a private letter; I hope you (will find that I) am not so much in love with philosophical productions, but that I can make them yield…..But, in the meantime, you defer too much to my ability in searching into this subject. What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in considering the colours of thin plates. If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

~~ From a letter written by Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, 5th Feb. 1676 ~~

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Sir Isaac Newton has come down to us as one of the greatest genius` in science; the name of Robert Hooke was deposited quietly in the dustbin of history long ago. Yet, in their lifetimes, their rivalry and animosity towards one another was a legendary and destructive showcase of how hubris and self-importance can murder a man`s good name and reputation.

Robert Hooke discovered the cell, established experimentation as a vital component of scientific research, pioneered work in optics, architecture, gravity, paleontology, microscopics and, well, so much more. Yet here we are, Isaac Newton is a god of science, an undoubted genius with a reputation the size of a super-nova, probably the most revered scientist who has ever drawn breath, and Hooke is almost a forgotten nobody……….Simply because he pissed off Newton and embroiled himself in a personal vendetta against the man he considered had used his discoveries and taken credit for them.

We often refer to Newtonian physics yet Hooke had laid much of the groundwork necessary to make Newton`s work possible: although it has to be said that Hooke`s talents were clearly acknowledged by his contemporaries. He was created curator of experiments for the New Royal Society on 5th November 1662, a position he held for an impressive 40 years: on his death in 1703, his rival for scientific fame was appointed (it has been suggested that he wormed his way into it) President of the Royal Society; after which, the only known portrait of Hooke in the President`s office mysteriously disappeared along with the records of much of Hooke`s work.

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According to the antique calendar used in bygone days, Issac Newton came into this world at the manor house of Woolsthorpe, near Grantham in Lincolnshire on Christmas Day 1642: it was almost killing two birds with one stone; the celebration of the birth of our spiritual saviour and of the genius who would devote his life to unravelling the mysteries of Divine Providence. His date of birth would later be amended under the Gregorian calendar as the 4th January, 1643, 3 months after the mortal expiration of his prosperous farming illiterate father, who had also travelled through life with the name of Isaac Newton. Isaac Junior popped out before his time, and so was a small and dainty child who, his mother Hannah Ayscough recounted, could sit inside a quart mug: when mother Newton remarried 3 years later, she upped sticks with her new husband leaving her young son into the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough , at Woolsthorpe.

Although he knew his parents, Robert Hooke was orphaned by the age of 13. Like Newton, he was thin and frail, but also by all accounts, had the undoubted misfortune to be pug ugly and it was a trial of perseverance to look upon his physog for any length of time, but, unlike Newton, who was inclined to be obsessively secretive and anti-social (it has been suggested that he suffered from Asberger Syndrome), Hooke was a gregarious and lively soul who sometimes tended to shoot quickly from the lip before engaging Mr Brain, but who devoted himself to numerous long range correspondence with the great and the good of his day, including Newton, Christopher Wren, Van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Boyle.

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“Sir.,—-Your design and mine are, I suppose, the same thing, which is the discovery of truth, and I suppose we can both endure to hear objections, so as they come not in a manner of open hostility, and have minds equally inclined to yield to the plainest deductions of reason from experiment. If, therefore, you will please to correspond about such matters by private letters, I shall very gladly embrace it; and when I shall have the happiness to peruse your excellent discourse (which as yet I cannot understand nothing more of by hearing it cursorily read,) I shall, if it be not ungrateful to you, send you freely my objections, if I have any, or my concurrences, if I am convinced, which is the more likely. This way of contending, I believe, to be the more philosophical of the two, for though I confess the collision of two hard-to-yield contenders may produce light, (yet) if they be put together by the ears by other`s hands and incentives, it will (produce rath) er ill concomitant  heat, which serves for no other use but………kindle——–cole. Sr, I hope you will pardon this plainness of, your very affectionate humble serv,”

1675-76. ROBERT HOOKE.

So where did their relationship go so wrong? As we have seen, Hooke came to believe that Newton had filched his ideas and innovations by building on them and taking the spotlight away from him without acknowledging his important contribution. This has much to do with Newton`s decidedly sociopathic disposition which tended to make him seem manipulative and devious with any he saw as useful to his purpose, and disregarding of those who had either served their purpose, or served no purpose whatsoever to the furtherance of his studies and ambitions. Hooke`s gregariousness and willingness to share information with Newton proved his undoing: he was dealing with a guy whose mind operated on a different planet.

Hooke was a polymath: a guy whose mind was like an intellectual scatter gun which seemed to simply cover everything in the living world – and the world beyond planet Earth. While Newton was primarily interested in physics and the “Music of the Spheres,” Hooke poked and prodded into a myriad dark holes which had never seen the light of day. His magnum opus, “Micrographia” was far more than being about microscopes, for the first time, the hidden world of microbes could be seen (Hooke coined the word “cell”.) He did extensive work in astronomy, and came up with a theory of light being a wave, a germ of an idea of a suggestion which by the 20th century would become a keystone of particle physics and quantum theory. His development of the microscope enabled him to put forward the idea that fossils within petrified wood were in fact the ancient remains of once living things.

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But while this, and other developments discovered and pushed forward by Hooke, were enough to keep his name in the spotlight with Newton during his lifetime, his death in 1703, and Newton sliding his feet under the top table as President of the Royal Society, meant that Hooke quickly slid from view and all but disappeared to history.

Isaac Newton deserves his place at the pinnacle of scientific achievement, but Robert Hooke should also be up there in the celestial, scientific stratosphere at the right hand of the Eternal Flame of Science: in both cases, the child was father to the man; Hooke was an outward looking, argumentative personality with a fierce determination to claim credit which he thought was rightfully his, while Newton was a secretive obsessive, who found it tiresome and difficult mixing with the “real world” and liked nothing better than his own company as he disappeared inside his thoughts. In a way Newton was right when he wrote about “……standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Every generation builds upon the experience of the previous one, and it`s no different in the world of science: we progress by a series of building blocks, one upon the other until someone of absolute genius comes along and sees something hidden from others…………

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

……….For now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

~~ Corinthians 13 ~~

We see through a glass, darkly at what is and can be: with the help of the spark of genius, we are allowed from time to time, for a fleeting moment, the chance to stand upon the shoulders of giants and see further than we have done before.”

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