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 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…