Skip to main content

Out of the Shadow of a Giant - John and Mary Gribbin *****

We should be truly grateful to John and Mary Gribbin for this opportunity to find out more about two stalwarts of 17th/18th century British science, Robert Hooke and Edmond Halley (apparently pronounced 'Hawley', as presumably it was thought of as Hall-ley). This pair have been unfortunately and unfairly overshadowed by Isaac Newton, and this book does a lot to bring them into the open. (I wish the Gribbins had also included another in Newton's shadow, the mathematician John Wallis.)

The aim here is very much to get a feel for the scientific contribution of this pair, though we do get some biographical detail, particularly of Hooke (in whose household it seemed to be decidedly risky to be young and female, even if you were his niece), with rather less of Halley's life. Both men were polymaths to a far greater extent than I had realised - for example I had no idea how much architecture Hooke was responsible for, including designing some of Wren's churches and coming up with the basic concept behind the St Paul's dome. He also did a considerable amount of impressive work on astronomy and geology. Similarly, we all know of Halley's astronomical ventures, but it was delightful to discover more of his remarkable scientific exploration exploits as the only non-navy man ever to become master and commander of a Royal Navy ship. Wonderful stuff, which the Gribbins bring to life in a style that is sometimes wry and always engaging.

What was more familiar, having read a lot about Newton, was these two men's interactions with the giant of the book's title. Halley came off far better of the two - as a far more diplomatic character he seemed better able to deal with Newton's caprices and was famously responsible for Newton's great Principia being published.

Hooke, of course, had a very rocky relationship with Newton. For some time after Newton's death this was portrayed very much from the 'winner', Newton's side. The Gribbins redress the balance, showing just how much Hooke contributed. If anything they are so fair to Hooke that they go a bit too far the other way, taking every opportunity to stick the knife into Newton, but giving Hooke (who I suspect was an equally difficult character) the benefit of the doubt. 

There's no doubt that Newton claimed for his own, or failed to acknowledge contributions from Hooke - but there seemed less effort to show where Hooke or Halley might have done the same - for example Halley's ideas on demographics were surely to some extent based on Graunt's, but he isn't mentioned. Two examples of showing perhaps unfair favour to Hooke: the Gribbins are very sarcastic about Newton's waffly fluid ideas as a possible explanation of  how gravity works, but don't point out that all the attempts of the period were either based on fluid concepts or streams of particles - Hooke's 'attraction' isn't an explanation at all, but merely an observation of its effect, and was much criticised (via Newton's use of it) at the time. We are also told that Newton's first law of motion was 'Hooke's of course' - except it was hardly novel as it came from Hooke. Galileo came close to it, and even Aristotle implied it, if only to show why he thought a vacuum was untenable.

However, I don't want to make too much of the bias towards Hooke. The contribution Hooke made certainly needs rebalancing if you take the popular view that still persists of Newton being the stand-out super genius of his era. As the Gribbins point out, Newton was a superb mathematician (this is why I'd like Wallis introduced more for comparison), but a less imaginative physicist than Hooke.

Altogether, then, a great opportunity to find out more about the sheer breadth of achievement of these two remarkable figures and to bring them out from under Newton's shadow. Recommended.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …