Science and skulduggery: Newton, Hooke and the missing portrait – TheArticle

Isaac Newton has a strong claim to be one of the greatest men who ever lived, but he was not a very nice one. His Principia established the laws of motion and gravity, his Opticks did the same for light and he was the first mathematician to use a version of differential calculus. But his pride in his own priority and suspicion of plagiarism led him to behave like an absolute monarch in what was known as the Republic of Letters.

As President of the Royal Society, Newton used his institutional power to crush his rivals and trash their reputations, pursuing them beyond the grave. As Master of the Mint, he was even more ruthless: he used his judicial power to ensure that forgers who came before him were executed. His pathological vindictiveness and paranoia embroiled him in lifelong disputes and litigation.

And Newton had much to hide. His secretive experiments in alchemy were eccentric enough, but his voluminous researches into theology and ecclesiastical history led him to a unitarian theology that risked professional suicide. Denial of the Holy Trinity was heresy and, had it become public, would have destroyed his academic, scientific and social status.

Newtons own reputation has now come under the spotlight again. One of several long-running disputes which absorbed his time and energy involved the Secretary of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke. Hooke was a great polymath in his own right. He is immortalised by Hookes Law, which governs elasticity, and helped Christopher Wren to rebuild London after the Great Fire. Hooke is celebrated above all as the discoverer of the cell, thanks to his pioneering use of the microscope. Indeed, his engravings of the flea and other denizens of the microscopic world in his Microcosmographia remain one of the great revelations of the 17th century scientific revolution.

Hitherto, it had been thought that no portrait of Hooke had survived. According to Professor Larry Giffing, an American biologist, such a likeness exists and was sold to a private buyer at Sothebys in 2006. Dr Giffing argues that this image of an anonymous mathematician is by the well-known artist Mary Beale and depicts Hooke at the age of 50. He argues that this was the portrait that hung in the Royal Societys original meeting room at Gresham College. More provocative and speculative is his claim that Newton deliberately suppressed the portrait when he took over as President in 1703, the year of Hookes death. Dr Giffing believes that the picture includes an orrery and a drawing embodying Hookes theory of the elliptical orbits of the planets the very subject of his dispute with Newton.

Such a pictorial reminder of his rivals claims might indeed have triggered Newtons paranoia and he was quite capable of going to almost any lengths to assert his own priority. The Royal Society moved premises to Fleet Street soon after Hookes death and no more is heard about his portrait. But there is no proof that Newton would stoop so low as to consign his rivals only likeness to oblivion. At most, the evidence against him is circumstantial. And even if Dr Giffing is right, it does not prove that Hooke really was plagiarised by Newton or vice versa. A leading article in the Times goes too far when it asserts: Had Newton and Wren never lived, we might be accustomed to Hookes picture on British banknotes.

That was never likely to happen. Hooke was a great scientist and perhaps an underrated one. Newton, though, was a scientific genius, perhaps the greatest of all time. As his contemporary Alexander Pope put it: Nature and Natures laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be and all was light.

The truth is that the author of the Principia deserves his preeminence. He almost certainly did discover the inverse square law of universal gravitation before Hooke, just as he worked out his version of calculus, known as fluxions, before the great German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz although the latter devised a better form of notation that is still used today. Newtons obsessive campaigns against these competitors merely diminish him in the eyes of posterity.

Why, then, did Newton mind so much about priority? The answer seems to be that he was a perfectionist who waited many years before committing his results to print. By then, others had already published theirs with the predictable consequence that disputes abounded. Hooke was a victim of the inevitable imperfections of early modern science, which often proceeded informally. Hooke undoubtedly grasped the ideas that underlay Newtons laws, without being able to demonstrate them. But Newton ought to have been more generous in acknowledging his contribution in the Principia, as he did those of others.

Today, it is easy for scientists who are impatient with learned journals to create their own home pages, using sites such as , where they can upload their papers and make them accessible to their peers. This ease of publication has not abolished arguments over priority or plagiarism, though it has made them easier to resolve. Today, Newtons disputes with Hooke, Leibniz and Flamsteed might have caused less bitterness.

But there is a new problem. There are thought to be more than 100 million published scientific papers. Nobody can read them all, nor even all that is published in their own fields. It is a good thing that no scientist now has the power once wielded by Newton for such intellectual power may corrupt just as surely as political power. Yet the possibility remains that a Hooke may languish somewhere, neglected and unjustly maligned, because he or she has defied the consensus. If at last we can put a face to Hookes name, it is time to do him posthumous justice.

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Science and skulduggery: Newton, Hooke and the missing portrait - TheArticle

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