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

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…