Sometimes I despair!

I am preparing a semi-popular lecture on the history of the steam engine with special emphasis on James Watt and Matthew Boulton so I was very pleased when in a comment on my recent post on Denis Papin, Paul McFedries mentioned a new book by William Rosen on the invention of the steam engine, The Most Powerful Idea in the World. The book had good reviews so I quite happily forked out 20 Euro that I can’t really afford, as I am broke at the moment, and ordered the book through the intertubes. I should point out that I am permanently broke as I have a somewhat limited income and I constantly buy books and CDs that I can’t really afford. The result is that I have a fine history of science library that I can study whilst listening to a superb collection of good music; life could be a lot worse.

The book duly arrived and although I am only on page 17 I am contemplating slam-dunking the offending object into the wastepaper basket without reading further. What has so enraged, disappointed, infuriated me that I am considering this drastic action? I will explain. On page 13 the author introduces Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke whose experiments on the existence and nature of the vacuum played a not insignificant role in the history of the steam engine, he writes:

…these wildly inventive, almost ridiculously prolific men were interested in practically everything. A brief list of their respective achievements would include the discovery of the Law of Elasticity1; the founding of the science of experimental chemistry2; the invention of the microscope3; the discovery of the basic laws governing the behavior of gases4; the first observation of the rotation of both Jupiter and Mars5; the discovery of the inverse-square law of gravity6; the authorship of the seventeenth century’s most profound Christian apologetics7; and the founding of the world’s first scientific society8.

Let us examine this list of scientific marvels. #1 is in fact one of the only ones that is indisputably true and refers to Hooke’s Law that we all learnt in our school physics lessons so it seems that the author is off to a good start. Unfortunately he falls flat on his face at the very next hurdle. #2 there is no way that either of our heroes could be described as the founders of experimental chemistry there being at least two earlier candidates alone in the seventeenth century in the persons of Andreas Libavius and Jan Baptist van Helmont. This is of course ignores such important Islamic experimental chemist as Geber, that is Jabir ibn Hayyan (c721 – c815 BCE), or al-Razi (865 – 925 BCE). I could go on but I think I have made my point. Maybe this was just a small slip let’s see how our author progresses. #3 it is not actually known who first invented the microscope but as Galileo and other members of the Accademia dei Lincei were carrying out microscopic investigations long before Boyle or Hooke were born this claim seems highly unlikely. By #4 the author seems to be on safer ground as we all learnt Boyle’s Law (Marriot’s Law if you went to school in France) in those same school physics lesson. Unfortunately even this is not correct, although Boyle and Hooke confirmed the gas law experimentally it was actually discovered by Richard Townely and Henry Power, the source for this claim? Robert Boyle himself as he published the law that incorrectly carries his name. #5 although Hooke shares the honours for the discovery of the big red spot on Jupiter with Cassini it was the latter who discovered the rotation of both Jupiter and Mars and determined their periods. #6 plunges into one of the juiciest disputes in seventeenth century physics. Hooke claimed priority over Newton on the subject of the inverse-square law causing Newton to remove Hooke from his list of favourite people. Whatever the truth of this highly complex debate on who contributed what to the theory of gravity there are two comments to be made on the author’s claim. Firstly, the inverse-square law was not discovered but hypothesised and the person who confirmed that this hypothesis was consistent with the know facts, such as the Keplerian Laws of Planetary Motion, was definitely Newton and not Hooke. Secondly, the first person to hypothesise the inverse-square law was neither Hooke nor Newton but Ismael Boulliau. #7 I will grant this to the author, as it is purely a matter of opinion but I would point out that Boyle has some very strong competitors in this field in the seventeenth century. #8 this last claim is at best unfortunate in its form of expression. Boyle and Hooke were part of the group that founded the Royal Society and not necessarily the principle participants and by the way it was not the world’s first scientific society.

On page 16 of his book Rosen actually manages to top this list of half-truths, false and completely ridiculous claims, he writes:

[Hooke is] probably England’s most gifted mathematician…

Now for all his undisputed polymath inventive genius Hooke suffered from one deficit that condemned him to the second grade in the times in which he lived, in comparison to his contemporaries and rivals such as Wren, Halley, Wallis, Gregory and above all Newton Hooke was a lousy mathematician.

As I wrote in the title I despair.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Myths of Science

One response to “Sometimes I despair!

  1. It does sound like a pretty bad book. However, the author may not be quite so wrong on point #4:

    although Boyle and Hooke confirmed the gas law experimentally it was actually discovered by Richard Townely and Henry Power, the source for this claim? Robert Boyle himself

    According to Joseph Agassi [1], Boyle does deserve the credit; the attribution to Townley is:

    an error which tallies very well with the 19th century climate of
    opinion, according to which Robert Boyle observed facts which his assistant Richard Townley generalized into the celebrated gas law. This error has been criticized by Gerland in 1909 and in 1913, but his criticism was ignored. … The chief testimony concerning the
    attribution of the law to Townley is allegedly Boyle’s original text. And as I shall argue in detail, it appears as if commentators, able to dig up obscure documents which are hard to decipher, have lost the ability to read a straightforward printed exposition … Boyle claims to have formulated and tested the gas law for pressures over one atmosphere, and attributes to Townley the extrapolation of the law to lower pressures.

    “In detail” means a 54 page paper:

    [1] “Who discovered Boyle’s law?”, Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 8, 1977, p.189-250 (available online,

    To modern ears it sounds odd to make a distinction between pressures above and below one atmosphere, but Agassi explains that.

    Of course, 1977 is a bit old; perhaps Agassi’s argument has had some pushback since then?

    As for Boulliau, I’ve run across something new there, which I will add as yet another comment to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s