My favorite physicist is Robert Hooke-- not for reasons of his oft-remembered contribution to physics in the form of Hooke's Law of springs, but rather for his many contributions that have gone un-remembered. He lived during a time when Sir Isaac Newton was in power in the Royal Society and while Newton was publishing his much-celebrated Principia. Not only did Newton's fame overshadow Hooke's contributions to physics, but Newton himself actively worked to bury Hooke's work. Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.” The giant he was specifically referring to was Robert Hooke.
Hooke, as I said, is mostly remembered in physics classes today as the person we associate with Hooke's Law, the law that governs how much force is needed to compress a particular spring given its “springiness”: a quantity we call the spring constant. It's a shame that Hooke's accomplishments have been so reduced in our collective scientific consciousness even while Newton's many accomplishments are celebrated endlessly. Hooke stated that Newton took his inverse square law of gravity, for instance, directly from Hooke himself. He also suggested that this same force governs the motions of the planets, but today we teach about Newton and a hypothetical apple and ignore Hooke's earlier work on this topic.
Newton was not a pleasant person to double cross, especially as he was in a position of power within the sciences of England. He supposedly actively worked to discredit Hooke and to subject Hooke's work to obscurity, especially after Hooke's death. He buried Hooke's scientific papers and destroyed the only known portrait of Robert Hooke. The only thing more regrettable than the fact that we have left Hooke out so completely from the annals of physics history is the fact that we celebrate Newton so widely and supplant many of Hooke's earlier accomplishments with Newton's story of his own success.
As with many scientists of his time, Hooke's contributions to science went far beyond the bounds of physics. He also did work in astronomy specifically with respect to comets, biology, paleontology, and of course his famous work with elasticity in springs. Not all of his ideas were correct, but the same could be said about any scientist at any time in history.
A very valid question to ask me would be, why does it matter? Why do I care so much that one notoriously difficult scientist supplanted another in the collective memory of physics history? The short answer is that science, including the social science of history, is a story about truth, and I want to know the truth and to have the truth be known, not an easy-to-recall lie. The longer story is one about academia itself and the way it functions. At times it can be cruel to the person who is not well connected, and this serves only to suppress new ideas and new viewpoints, working in opposition to good scientific processes. This is the story as well of why women and people of color need to be included in physics-- more viewpoints and more ideas can never hurt science, as science can and does distinguish, eventually, between the valid and true ideas and the discarded hypotheses. Hooke's story is a story about dis-inclusion that is still relevant today.
Photo by BICEP2 Collaboration
There is HUGE news in astronomy this week. Astronomers and physicists have been on the hunt for an image like this one for about 20 years, and the team who finally took it is a shoe-in for the Nobel Prize in physics. So what is it all about? Most news articles I've read have been either wrong or have grossly oversimplified the meaning of the image. Others are too technical and difficult for the general public. I finally found a blog post by astronomer Phil Plait where he explains what you're seeing correctly without oversimplifying it. Take a read:
Cosmic News: Astronomers Find the Twisted Fingerprints of Inflation in the Background Glow of the Universe.