Saturday, August 11, 2007

On the shoulders of giants

I’m presently reading an absolutely fascinating book called The Scientists by John Gribbin (I’ll have a detailed review of this one of these days). This book discusses the development of modern science, starting with the beginnings of modern scientific thought in the west, about 600 years ago. This book is really about the different personalities that shaped science, as much as it is about the discoveries themselves.

Not surprisingly, over time our ideas about the scientists themselves become clouded by myth, urban legend and the force of their discoveries themselves. We start to imagine scientists in a certain mould, and typecast them into wrought-iron personalities, just like we do to most famous people. Soon, the myth becomes so large that it is impossible to even think that these people had any other sides to their personalities. Of course, we see this all the time with important political and historical figures, like religious leaders or kings or presidents and the like, where it is often impossible to say anything that goes against popular perception.

Anyway, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein are probably the two scientists who have absolutely captured popular imagination. They were each a colossus of their times, and their scientific achievements are towering (and that would be my understatement for the day). When I was in high school, I had a thoroughly entertaining chemistry teacher who would regale us with stories in most of his lectures, usually to inspire us, and would end up struggling to finish the syllabus. Chemistry was an afterthought. Anyway, one of his stories was about Newton and his famous “shoulders of giants” saying.

In case you haven’t heard that one before, Newton wrote in a letter to Robert Hooke that said

“If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”

To the casual reader, it might seem like Newton was being rather modest and respectful, and suggesting that his towering achievements were built on the work of pioneers before him. Anyway, that was what my chemistry teacher told us. Now, my chemistry teacher was an outstanding yarn spinner, and in an earlier time in India would have achieved great fame and fortune as the village story teller. But for all his ready wit and imagination, he unfortunately was a terrible historian, and thought that actual facts were just trifling inconveniences that needed to be put in their place, ignored when justified. He had done so with this famous quote as well.

So, coming back to Gribbon’s book, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the parts about the lives and contributions of Hooke and Newton. Newton was undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists of all time, but contrary to popular modern imagination, was hardly the paradigm of virtue some make him out to be. He was petty, vindictive, churlish (I’ve never used that word, churlish, in a sentence before), and extremely influential as well. If he decided to dislike someone, that poor sod was toast. Unfortunately for Hooke, that was exactly what happened to him.

Hooke, in terms of pure scientific achievement, really contributed almost as much to science (if such things are really quantifiable) as much as Newton, even though he is mostly remembered for one of his minor contributions, Hooke's law of elasticity. Hooke had made substantial contributions to the field of optics (particularly through his epic book, Micrographia), and in planetary motion. In a series of letters about planetary motion, Hooke had suggested conceptual links between attractive forces and forces decreasing with the square of distance (the inverse square law that later became a foundation of the concepts of gravity that Newton mathematically proved). Hooke also had suggested at various times that planetary orbits could be elliptical (again, it took the mathematical genius of Newton to actually prove this), and furthermore, Hooke had also independently observed what are now famous as Newton’s rings. Now, from all surviving accounts of Hooke (and there are few surviving accounts, the reasons for which we’ll talk about in just a few minutes), Hooke was a first rate experimental scientist (though not a mathematical genius), and was also someone who loved to share his ideas and discuss them freely. Newton was quite the opposite. Anyway, Newton published his masterpiece, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, but in it he did not acknowledge or even mention Hooke’s contributions at all. While Hooke was as excited and amazed by the brilliance of Principia he was very disappointed that Newton did not give him any credit at all. What is more, Newton decided to take great offence when Hooke brought up the subject.

He then used his considerable power (Newton held many powerful positions with patrons from the royal family and nobility of England) to diminish or expunge all accounts of Hooke’s numerous contributions. Hooke made many attempts of rapprochement which Newton spurned. It was in one of these numerous letters that the two exchanged where Newton made the famous quote on standing on the shoulders of giants.

Why shoulders of giants, you ask? Well, Hooke was a physically weak man who suffered from numerous ailments (from childhood), was short in stature and had a severely crooked back. Newton, in all his spite, was mostly mocking Hooke, as if to say that Hooke’s own contributions were tiny.

While none of this takes away anything from Newton’s astounding scientific achievements, it does make the person behind them so much more human, and not perfect. We need to learn to dissociate the person from the achievement, but often fail to do so.

So much for the stories of my chemistry teacher. Now I need to check on one of his other favorite stories, that of Kekule. I’ll wager right now that my teacher had no idea what he was happily talking about.


post-doc said...

Fascinating! I had no idea. Poor Hooke. I know some people like him and they are all mercilessly used by someone at some point.

Anonymous said...

Nice write-up - I have to read the book. Does Gribbon mention Newton's other famous rivalry - with Leibniz ?

Also, I would highly recommend Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. The three books together are about 3000 pages, and the narrative is sometimes laborious, but it is a fascinating historical fiction set in the period when science was 'born' in the early 17th century. Some interesting perspective on the early scientists like Hooke, Wren, Boyle etc. and the famous rivalry between Leibniz and Newton. The intrigues in the European political courts serve as the backdrop.

Anonymous said...

I had read about this before in some book. Good to have it reaffirmed once again that Newton was not exactly being oh-so-modest..

Well, things are not all that different today. A vast majority of the "successful" scientists, researchers and professors I have come across are small-minded, vengeful, full of spite and have an unmatched craving for personal glory.

And it is not just in India that I'm basing my sample upon.

Sunil said...

Katie.......not much has changed since then, huh? I know plenty of people who have lost out on credit for a lot of things. And it's all very infuriating.

Bongopondit.....the book does go a little into Newton and Leibniz. But when a book has to cover 500 years of science, it is hard to go into all those details! I have heard about Baroque cycle from a number of people. And since i'm very fond of historical fiction, i'm pretty sure I'll love it. I must get my hands on it, though I don't know when i'll find the time to read a series as long as that :-)

Anonymous....i don't think that is true for a "vast majority" of the successful scientists. I've met every kind, and some of them I know are generous to a fault. So here I'll have to disagree with you, and say that there are plenty of inflated egos and petty characters, but there are still a number of scientists to look up to and admire.

Wavefunction said...

Yep! Good you wrote about it, and hardly surprising isn't it!? Newton was simply not a very nice man, and his treatment of Leizniz was despicable by any standards. However, I think you will agree that it still does not take anything away from the statement when examined objectively.
As you know, Hooke is also credited with the discovery and formal description of the cell. One of the things he did in the Royal Society was "test whether a spider can run out of a circle made out of unicorn horn powder". Someone brought unicorn horn powder (don't ask from where!). Spider did run out.
Ut tensio sic vis?!

Veo Claramente said...

That is really interesting. It really bothers me the way we often excuse someone's atrocious behaviour with "Oh but they are a great scientist". Doesn't make it okay for me.

that quote is forever destroyed for me, poor Hooke.

Can't wait to hear about Kekule! Daydreaming on the bus right?

Wavefunction said...

Oh, and if you have not heard the quote by Hal Abelson, here it is:

If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders...

Sunil said...

Ashutosh.....Hooke's work on microscopy (as part of his work on optics) laid the foundations for all modern cell biology. A giant. The book does touch upon Newton and Leibnitz. But a book covering 500 years of science can only do so much :-). I'll try to review it in a week or two.

Veo....I'm very sorry that I ruined the quote for you. But while it isn't ok, it really doesn't take anything away from Newton's astounding achievements. And many pathbreaking scientists are petty or egotistical. But history remembers them for their contributions to science. The rest are considered "collateral damage". It sometimes isn't pretty, is it?

renie, thanks. I'll add my blog to the directory.

Ashutosh....heh, that is a fantastic quote. May be I should use it more often :-))

Anonymous said...

I think it's John Gribbin, by the way, not Gribbon. He's an excellent science writer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he's telling the same story again and again. He has already covered the Hooke/ Newton conflict in his really fascinating book "The History of Science", and again in his more recent book about the Royal Society (mental block about the title).

Sunil said...

Ouch....yes it is Gribbin. I just had a review of his book "The scientists", here, and you will enjoy reading it.