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Newton's nemesis. Hooke's design for a quadrant mounted to follow a chosen star as it moves across the sky; and the winning entry in a portrait competition to mark the tercentenary of Hooke's death.

Championing a 17th Century Underdog

By: 
Richard Stone
2003-07-08 (All day)

LONDON--A quick quiz: This 17th century scientist was an accomplished astronomer, inventor, surveyor, and architect who helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. He was also a maverick thinker who suggested evolution 2 centuries before Charles Darwin. Who was this polymath?

If you guessed Robert Hooke, you know your history better than most. Set against the brilliance of his contemporary, Isaac Newton, Hooke's reputation has been dim. Now, he's undergoing a remarkable rehabilitation. A clutch of new books has recently appeared or are about to be published, and at a meeting organized by the Royal Society and Gresham College in London, yesterday and today, scholars marveled at his remarkable life and career.

Hooke made his mark early. As a student at Oxford in the late 1650s, he joined the laboratory of Robert Boyle, where, working with springs, he discovered that stress is directly proportional to strain--Hooke's law. In 1665, at the age of 30, he published Micrographia, a bestseller based on his intricate drawings of the natural world through one of his inventions, the compound microscope. His insights into extinction proved profound. In the mid 17th century, fossils and minerals were thought a trick of nature, formed by magic, although a handful of scholars believed that fossils were relics of Noah's flood. After examining seashore fossils, Hooke wrote in 1667: "There have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages of which we can find none at present." Only decades later was the concept of extinction widely accepted.

One area of intense interest among scholars is how greatly Hooke contributed to Newton's theory of gravitation. In a 1679 letter, Hooke sought Newton's help in solving the problem of planetary motion. Hooke had determined the physical principles of celestial mechanics, but it appears that he did not know how to calculate the general orbital motion in a central field of force. Newton went on to find the solution, a cornerstone of his landmark 1687 treatise Principia. Hooke accused Newton of misappropriating his ideas, a charge Newton vehemently denied.

Earning Newton's enmity proved to be disastrous for Hooke. "None of the thousands of instruments and models he constructed or the fossil specimens he collected survived Newton's presidency of the Royal Society," notes Ellen Tan Drake of Oregon State University in Corvallis. As further insult, Hooke's only known portrait was reputedly destroyed after his death by Newton supporters. It has taken 3 centuries--and a hardy band of revisionist scholars--to coax Hooke from the shadows.

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