Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 183:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 183.

Today, a conflict rises as science changes form. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Shortly before Robert Hooke was born in 1635, Francis Bacon made his famous statement that nature can be commanded only if we obey her -- that we have to understand nature before we can deal with it. The point was that technology has to be served by science. Scientists followed Bacon's advice, and they began to interact with technology as they never had before.

Robert Hooke was in the dead center of this movement. He was a generalist of astonishing range. He had important and lasting things to say about optics, mechanics, geography, architecture, materials science, clock-making, paleontology, and microbiology. He was a virtuoso scientist with one foot solidly planted in the technologies around him.

Isaac Newton was only seven years younger than Hooke, but he shaped the science that followed Bacon. Newton worked alone and with a kind of severe, rigorous abstraction from the technologies, which he saw as worldly distractions. He tried to endow science with the purity of mathematics. Newton valued intensity and rigor far more than he valued Hooke's breadth of understanding.

Alexander Pope wrote about the specialized science Newton was creating. He said,

One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit.

When Newton turned to optics in 1675, he had little to say about the important things Hooke had done in the field. Newton responded to Hooke's fairly gentle objections with black fury -- with an anger that reached far beyond the issue.

Hooke had been a lifelong member of the Royal Society. Newton accepted its presidency only after Hooke died in 1703. Then he set about reshaping it as well. Part of that reshaping was systematic action to bury Hooke. During Newton's 24-year presidency, many of Hooke's papers were lost, his apparatus was allowed to rust away, and his name wasn't mentioned.

Newton, of course, was the greatest intellect of his age. His antipathy toward Hooke flowed from absolute conviction. Despite his sanctimony about seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, he clearly saw his forebears as midgets. In his defense it must be said that science cannot always be close-coupled to technology. At some point, Hooke's vision had to give way to the concentration and specialization of modern science.

It was Newton who moved science to that new plane. But Bacon's idea that science has to serve technology has come back in the 20th century. And, as it's done so, historians have rediscovered Robert Hooke's astonishing scientific scope and stature.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

'Espinasse, Margaret, Robert Hooke. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. This episode has been revised as Episode 1751.

I should like to offer a picture of Hooke. Unfortunately, I cannot. None seems ever to have been made. You see, Hooke was apparently rather unbeautiful. His close friend John Aubrey wrote that he was

... of middling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is large; his eie full and popping, and not quick; a gray eie. He has a delicate head of haire browne, and of an excellent moist curle.

When Richard Walker published his Life of Hooke in 1705, he added that Hooke was

... in person but despicable, being crooked and low of stature, and as he grew older more and more deformed. He was always very pale and lean, and latterly nothing but skin and bone, with a meagre aspect, his eyes grey and full, with a sharp ingenious look whilst younger. He wore his own hair of dark brown colour, very long, and hanging neglected over his face uncut and lank, which about three years before his death he cut off and wore a periwig. He went stooping and very fast, having but a light body to carry, and a great deal of spirits and activity, especially in his youth. He was of an active, restless, indefatigable genius, even almost to the last, and always slept little to his death, oftenest continuing his studies all night, and taking a short nap in the day. His temper was melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous, which more increased upon him with his years.

For more on Hooke, see Episodes 839,  350,  and 1169.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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