Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac!

People who consider themselves well informed about the general history of science know that Isaac Newton, who died on 20th March 1727 (OS), was a cantankerous, argumentative, self-opinionated, unforgiving old ghoul who did his best to ruin the reputations and careers of several of his contemporary natural philosophers, most notably Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz.

This supposed knowledge led David and Stephen Clarke to make their highly erroneous claims concerning Newton’s alleged persecution of the early pioneer in electrical research, Stephen Gray, that I dealt with in my annual Christmas Newton post.

I was reminded of this highly negative view of Newton by a recent post by Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt on historical over-identification in the case of the recent Richard III kerfuffle. Becky wrote:

Exposing injustice is a key element for generating interest and enthusiasm beyond the academy. If someone usually held in high regard (Tudor monarchs, Shakespeare) is thought responsible for the oppression of a rediscovered, wronged hero, then identification with and emotional attachment to the story can become particularly intense. This is true of the mission to rescue Richard, and history of science examples are Robert Hooke and Nikolai Telsa, seen as victims of Isaac Newton and Thomas Edison respectively.

The “Robert Hooke was robbed” fan club being convinced that their hero would long ago have been recognised as the greatest thing since sliced bread if it hadn’t been for the evil Isaac.

I was reminded again last Sunday by Lisa Jardine on BBC Radio 4’s A point of View, who discussing the actual science communication hot topic, open access, in terms of the cooperation between astronomers in the 17th century actual gave a very 18th century and historically highly inaccurate version of the dispute between Newton and Flamsteed. Putting the blame highly unfairly totally on Flamsteed’s shoulders as if Francis Bailey’s 19th century Flamsteed biography and everything that has followed since in the history of Early Modern astronomy had never taken place. Given that Ms Jardine is fêted as an expert on the history of science of the period she ought to know better.

Having had my interest in the topic reawakened I thought I would take the opportunity on the 286th anniversary of Newton’s passing to do a bit of adjusting to what is supposedly known about Isaac and his grumpy personality.

In the 18th century Newton was regarded as a saint and the hagiographical biographies painted him as if he could do no wrong. Flamsteed was an evil nobody who hindered the great genius from realising his aims. Hooke had largely ceased to exist in the popular memory; an unfair fate that actually had very little to do with Newton or the disputes between the two of them. Finally Leibniz was, for the English at least, a dastardly foreign blaggard, who had tried to steal Newton’s crowing achievement, the calculus.

In the 19th century the picture began to change and Newton’s feet of clay started to be exposed in a new biographical debate excellently described by Rebekah Higgitt in her book Recreating Newton. At the latest Frank Manuel’s psychological study of Newton A Portrait of Isaac Newton, published in 1968, exposed the revenge-obsessed monster that people now take to be the true face of Isaac. However it is not that simple. People’s over-interpretation of Manuel’s excellent study have led to a vision of Isaac that is just as much a myth as the 18th century saint of science, as the saying goes it takes two to argue and Newton’s supposed victims all gave as good as they got and in one of the three notorious cases mentioned in the first paragraph it was Newton who was the victim and not the villain.

At the beginning of the 1670’s Newton who was already approaching thirty was a nobody. A few people in the know had heard about this man in Cambridge who was a bit of a whizz at maths but that was about it. Then he presented his reflecting telescope to the Royal Society and became almost literally overnight a star of the then scientific community. However it was anything but plain sailing. He got accused of plagiarising the telescopes of both the Scottish optical physicist, James Gregory, and the rather mysterious French inventor Laurent Cassegrain. A situation that was saved by Gregory graciously acknowledging Newton’s superiority and the chauvinistic Royal Society dismissing the French case out of hand. Encouraged by the success of his telescope Newton then submitted his legendary paper on the nature of light a true milestone in the history of optics. Instead of being hailed for the masterpiece that it undoubtedly is this paper met an avalanche of criticism that I have dealt with in some detail here. Leading the pack was Robert Hooke who considered himself the leading authority on all matters optical. Hooke dismissed Newton’s first venture into scientific publishing with scorn. His attacks on Newton and his theories were so vitriolic that in the end Newton withdrew from publication the extensive paper that he had written in reply to his critics, especially Hooke, and famously only published it thirty years later, after Hooke’s death, as the first part of his justifiably famous Optics.

Time past and the quarrel was put aside, if not forgotten, and at end of the 1670s and the beginning of the 1680s the two corresponded quite cordially on the subject of gravity and falling bodies; a correspondence that was certainly one of the stimuli that led to Newton composing his Principia. Unfortunately as this work was approaching completion and publication by the Royal Society Hooke piped up again claiming that Newton was plagiarising him and that he alone deserved credit for the discovery of the laws of gravity. Newton went ballistic and threatened to withdraw his masterwork from publication a situation that required all of Edmond Halley’s skill of persuasion to smooth over. However any relations that Newton and Hooke might have had were now once and for all dead and Newton, who had been previously prepared to acknowledge Hooke’s contributions to his work, removed all mention of him from the Principia.

I know that it’s a hard pill for the “Robert Hooke was robbed” fan club to swallow but there is no doubt that the villain of the peace in this private war of words was Hooke and not Newton. There are stories of Newton extracting his revenge after Hooke’s death when he became President of the Royal Society but there is no evidence to back them up and I personally think they can be considered myths.

It might be claimed that for some reason Hooke was just allergic to Newton, an unfortunate twist of history, but Hooke was notorious for his high-octane disputes with anybody and everybody in the scientific community. He had spectacular rows Christian Huygens, Henry Oldenburg the secretary of the Royal Society and with John Flamsteed as well as a boat load of other minor figures. Hooke was definitely not a happy man and not an easy one to get on with.

The dispute with Flamsteed was more of a two sided affair with the two very stubborn astronomers butting heads for a couple of decades before their mutual dislike exploded into open warfare. I have already written twice about this dispute here and here and won’t go into details here but as I already said in the past both of the antagonist gave as good as they got and although Newton was probably more to blame than Flamsteed, England’s first Astronomer Royal was no angel.

Like Hooke Newton was by no means the only person with whom Flamsteed, who was notoriously grumpy, clashed horns. As already mentioned Flamsteed and Hooke couldn’t stand each other but Flamsteed’s special wrath was saved for Edmond Halley. Halley and Flamsteed had originally worked together and how and why the fell out is not really known and a topic of much speculation. Flamsteed’s hatred of Halley grew to the point where he refused to use Halley’s name referring to him only as Reymers after Nicolai Reymers Baer the German astronomer whom Flamsteed believed had plagiarised his great hero and role model Tycho Brahe, Baer being for Flamsteed the most despicable person who had ever lived.

Leibniz was probably the least belligerent of all the disputants discussed here and he became the victim of Newton’s most vindictive actions in their notorious calculus dispute; however even Leibniz was not entirely blameless. When they initial got to know each other Newton and Leibniz treated each other with respect and as the accusation of plagiarism of the calculus was first made against Leibniz in the 1690s it was Newton who stomped it down and even apologised to his German colleague.  So what had changed when the accusations were raised again at the end of the 1710s? In the meantime Leibniz had launched his attack on Newton’s theory of gravity.

Now criticism is the lifeblood of scientific progress so it was, of course, fully legitimate for Leibniz to criticise Newton but he did so by hitting below the belt. Unable to fault the mathematics of Newton’s theory Leibniz criticised his religion. He pointed out that if Newton’s theory was correct it would inevitably lead to deism at best and atheism at worst. Newton was deeply religious and even believed that God had chosen him personally to uncover the secrets of His creation. He was well aware of the possible danger to religious belief of his theory and having his nose rubbed in it did not make him a happy boy. Even worse Leibniz did not restrict his criticism to philosophical subtleties but mocked and ridiculed Newton for his rather pathetic attempts to recuse his theory from the accusations. This was more than the, in the meantime, almost seventy year old Newton could take and so when the chance opened up to take revenge on his adversary in the calculus dispute he took it in spades pursuing his enemy even beyond the grave. If Leibniz had not been so keen to tread on Newton’s sensibilities on the religious questions then the calculus dispute would probably have taken a less vitriolic route.

I certainly don’t want to explain away or even excuse Newton’s incontestable bad behaviour but in all of the legendary disputes of his life he had to deal with opponents whose behaviour was often not better than his own and in the case of Robert Hooke definitively worse. The late 17th century scientific community was full of grumpy old men behaving badly.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

12 responses to “Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac!

  1. Michael Weiss

    Bare-knuckles (or even brass-knuckles) seems to have been the default mode for scientific discourse until the 19C or so. When did it become de rigueur to confine the jabs to the footnotes?

    Another thing: you write, [Leibniz] did so by hitting below the belt. Unable to fault the mathematics of Newton’s theory Leibniz criticised his religion. Weren’t theological arguments for or against a scientific theory considered legitimate well into the 18C?

    In other words, nowadays we have “wall between science and religion”, and no reputable scientific journal would publish a paper claiming that Prof. von Hufflepuffer’s theory of black-hole jets should be rejected because it’s inconsistent with God’s omnipotence (or vice versa). But that sort of argument was, I thought, considered fair throughout the period in question.

  2. By making believe that the dispute between Newton’s faction and Leibniz was merely some sort of apolitical grumpiness of crotchety old men, you do a monumental disservice to the history of the critical geopolitical battle that was being carried on at the time. And if you claim not to be aware of Leibniz’ political aspirations in his position with the Hanoverian succession, then what claim to be a credible historian have you?

    • I think that the role of the Hanoverian succession at the time this despute exploded should be further discussed on this blog. I would love a factual discussion on this (more than what I read in Neal Stephenson’s “The Baroque Cycle”). While Newton was a famous natural philosopher at the time (and Master of the Mint), Leibniz was a confidant of the Hanoverian court and had substantial influence. There was a lot of political play involved at the time, possibley more so than the science. Both men had a lot at stake.

  3. Jeb

    So is it a case of newton got attacked when he was effectively having to play a role i.e adopting a new status position or place in the food chain? You generally feel like a bit of a fake at first I think and you are having to effectively act a new part. See it with p.g’s changing into that first ill fitting second hand suit and looking very uncomfortable as they make their way to first classes as instructor. Awkward transition often, for a period. Perfect time to slip in the knife if you are so inclined.

  4. Jeb

    Unless my reading is horrible flawed I think you learn a new role by observing the people already in it and replicating behavior. It is a means of replicating culture and transmitting it from one generation to the next.

    Perhaps it is as much a case of watching grumpy old men behaving badly. Newton a product of a very particular culture in which these types of behavior mark rank.

  5. Newton may have robbed Hooke, but Newton definitely robbed Kepler. But Newton also understood what Kepler did not. So, the issue of robbing is an academic issue, what is important is to understand clearly what Kepler discovered and what Newton did with Kepler’s Rule. Newton’s real crime is knowing that Kepler’s Rule is the definition of density, but instead of building a non-dynamical system of the world on this understanding, building an occult and supernatural system based on Newton’s dynamical laws (which are merely a rephrasing of Kepler’s Rule). In short, Newton used Kepler’s Rule to compute orbits but claimed to have used Newton’s absurd dynamical laws in his computations. This is the greatest scientific fraud ever.

  6. Newton believed that God had chosen him personally to uncover the secrets of His creations

    Do you have a documentation for this claim? I agree with this statement and I use it in my blog too but I would like to find a first-hand evidence that shows Newton making this claim.

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  11. If, however, the research becomes a mission there is a risk of tipping the scales too far. Just because someone s reputation has been eclipsed by enemies, it does not follow that they were a saint. This simply replaces one set of uncritically-accepted heroes with another. Richard III becomes incapable of acts that would have been perfectly normal in his circumstances; Hooke becomes the inventor and discoverer of almost everything.

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