Was Robert Hooke Really as Big of a Jerk as Shown on Cosmos? And Why Didn't He Have a Face?
Viewers of last Sunday's episode of Cosmos were treated to an empowering, true story: of comets and intellectual brilliance, and learned knowledge conquering blind fear. We learned how one of the greatest scientific works of all time -- Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica -- came to be published. We also learned how it almost wasn't; how the shuttered and mercurial Newton nearly withheld his work from the world, afraid to face the critical scorn of his colleagues.
Every story needs a hero. This one graced us with two: Isaac Newton, of whom you are no doubt aware, and Edmond Halley, a wonderful and worldly thinker who actively encouraged and funded Newton's revolutionary work. (You may know him for his comet.)
Every story also needs a villain. Playing the role: Robert Hooke. Though on paper he may not sound like it. Hooke discovered the cell, inspired the use of microscopes for scientific endeavors, mathematically described how springs work, deduced that light travels in waves, and, through his correspondence with Newton, helped his colleague to formulate the law of universal gravitation -- which, at the most fundamental level, describes how everything in the universe affects the movement of everything else.
But in Cosmos, Hooke was depicted as crooked and dark, with a wicked and raspy voice, and a vindictive character; a demented mix between Ebenezer Scrooge, a scarecrow, and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. And oddly, we never saw his face. Was the harsh portrayal merited?
Perhaps. Hooke was short-tempered and fiercely protective of his ideas. To his intellectual rivals, like Isaac Newton, he could be petty and vindictive.
"Hooke has been going around London, saying that you got the Law of Gravity from him," Edmond Halley told Newton in Cosmos. To which Newton replied, "That litigious little..."
Did Hooke tell his friends and colleagues that he was the discoverer? Almost certainly. But likely not in the outright mean-spirited manner in which Cosmos portrayed it. Hooke wasn't lying about originating the law of gravitation; he genuinely believed that he did. And he had a case. He was hypothesizing on such a law as early as 1665. But Newton undeniably beat him to the finished product.
As io9's Alasdair Wilkins pointed out, history remembers winners, and so we recall a tale in which a bright Isaac Newton overcame the oppression of an underhanded Robert Hooke. Whether or not that telling is completely true will never be conclusively known. There are also legitimate questions of whether or not Hooke really was a huge jerkwad. It's possible that the popular assessment of his demeanor may simply be a case of historical heaping, where historians primarily base their descriptions of his character on the works of their predecessors.
It's also easy to cast shadows upon a man without a face. No direct portraits of Robert Hooke exist. The most popular image (seen right) was painted in 2004 by Rita Greer, based on descriptions from his colleagues, John Aubrey and Richard Waller.
Faceless villains also make for captivating storytelling.
(Images: FOX, Wikimedia Commons)