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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.

Review by Brian Clegg


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