I’m an inveterate fan of the underdog, but sometimes the underdog gets squished. As an example, take Robert Hooke—something of a scientific underdog, despite being an inventor and polymath described as “England’s Leonardo”. It was Hooke’s misfortune that he picked a fight with one of the smartest men in history: master mathematician Isaac Newton, Mister Gravity himself.
Not that picking a fight was something that Hooke was shy about in his later years. In addition to his multifarious talents, he gained a reputation for being cantankerous, vindictive and petty. Once again, Hooke’s problem was that the man he picked a fight with was a spectacular example of cantankerousness, vindictiveness and pettiness.
The third episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spactime Odyssey retells the story of Hooke and Newton as part of Tyson’s celebration of Edmond Halley of Halley’s Comet fame, a contemporary of both men and a notable polymath in his own right. However, as the story is told from Halley and Newton’s point of view, Hooke is shown as Newton saw him: a hunchbacked, dwarfish figure, with lank, greasy hair and a face always in shadow (the lack of a contemporary portrait of Hooke is often blamed on either neglect or deliberate destruction on Newton’s part).
It’s a fascinating story*, to be sure, replete with accusations of plagiarism, a vendetta lasting beyond the grave and some of the most important scientific discoveries of this or any era. Nor does Tyson shy away from Newton’s own strangeness: not only was he far more of a recluse than Hooke, but he also focused much of his time and intellectual energy on alchemy and the search for hidden messages from God in the bible. It’s hard not to feel that Hooke is a bit hard done by in Tyson’s portrayal—his many achievements are mentioned, albeit more briefly than accusations of plagiarism and credit claimed for other scientists’ work that could just as easily be levelled at Newton.
The feud with Newton was to sink Hooke’s place in scientific history for centuries. Although the two men had very different areas of expertise—Newton was the master mathematician and theoretician, whereas Hooke was an experimenter and thinker in almost every field available—they ended up quarrelling wherever their interests intersected. Famously, his “standing on the shoulders of giants” comments is often thought not to refer to his illustrious predecessor but to be a pointed jibe at Hooke, who was shorter even than Newton.
When Newton became president of the Royal Society shortly after Hooke’s death, he did much to conceal his predecessor’s achievements. In more recent years, scholars have rescued Hooke’s reputation somewhat, but only those with an interest in the history of science or the Regency era in England are likely to know much about him. Newton, by contrast, is generally reckoned one of the finest minds in history and gets his face plastered across banknotes.
It’s a pity that Cosmos doesn’t even the scales a little more, because otherwise it’s a great show, striking a fine balance between entertainment and education. Tyson conveys the march of our understanding of the universe around us in unapologetically positive tones, and if he doesn’t always match the quasi-mystical sense of wonder of Carl Sagan (to whose Cosmos: A Personal Journey series Tyson’s namesake show is a sequel/remake), he may yet be delivering something that could inspire a new generation of scientists.
*Told in much more detail, and to my mind more even-handedly, in Neil Stephenson’s massive-yet-fascinating Baroque Cycle of novels.