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
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
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
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
'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 © 1988-2018 by John H.
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