The Mystery Of Newton’s Possible Vandalism

By Debra Kelly on Monday, February 8, 2016
13_Portrait_of_Robert_Hooke
“The possession of two such men as Newton and Hooke is rarely granted to one generation. They were not equal, however, in their greatness. But, while ample justice has been done to the genius of Newton, the labours of Hooke have been sadly overlooked.” —Alexander Bryson

In A Nutshell

Robert Hooke has a whole host of scientific credits to his name, but he’s far from a household name. Certainly, he’s not as well-known as Sir Isaac Newton, who went head to head with him over the laws of gravity. Hooke laid the groundwork for the theory, by all accounts, and even though Newton did all the math, he refused to give Hooke the credit Hooke felt he was due. When Hooke later died and Newton became president of the Royal Society, it’s entirely possible that he destroyed (or at least left on the curb) the only portrait of Hooke ever to exist.

The Whole Bushel

Robert Hooke was a 17th-century genius who was likened to Leonardo da Vinci in his day. He wrote science’s first best-selling book (Micrographia), first called the little building blocks of life a “cell,” documented astronomical phenomena, first put forward the idea of light as a wave, first said fossils were the remains of living things, established the idea of the extinction of an entire species, and first worked with the idea of elasticity.

In spite of all that—and more—his name is hardly up there with the likes of Sir Isaac Newton. That’s largely because of a major scientific feud and because of Newton himself.

There were a number of scientists all working on the same thing in the 17th century, all racing to discover and publish first. For centuries, science had this vague idea of aether, some sort of force that held everything together. Thanks to Newton, we call that “gravity” today, but at the same time Newton was hashing out all the finer details of his theories, Hooke was working on the problem, too.

The feud between the two started with Hooke’s insistence that he had laid all the groundwork for Newton’s mathematical proofs, while all Newton was willing to admit was that Hooke had been indeed also been working on gravitational theory.

Who actually did what notwithstanding, Newton had the advantage of living for around 24 years longer than Hooke. In that time, Hooke didn’t just fade into obscurity; he was also vilified by his biographers. The image of Hooke that emerged was of a miserable scientist who stole more than he created, a bitter old hunchback who went up against the genius of the great Sir Isaac Newton.

After Hooke died, Newton went on to become the president of the Royal Society. As such, he had one thing of particular interest under his control: the only known portrait of Robert Hooke.

Needless to say, that portrait no longer exists.

And therein lies the mystery: What the heck happened to it? The dramatic notion is that Newton himself had the portrait of his nemesis destroyed (or, at the very least, looked the other way while it was ruined or let it rot away). The society moved to a new location under Newton’s supervision, so another theory suggests that something very conveniently happened to the portrait on the way to its new home.

While we have no clue which one of those scenarios is real, the Royal Society itself says that it’s not even sure there was a portrait of Hooke ever in its library. There are a couple of mentions of such a portrait, but none of them are in the form of any kind of official records of the day. One piece comes from the diary of a German traveler who wrote an entry expressing some extreme disappointment when the society’s gallery didn’t measure up to his expectations, while further records—including official inventories—don’t mention any portrait of Hooke ever being in the gallery to begin with.

On the other hand, that’s an odd thing to have been overlooked, considering Hooke was one of the founding members of the society, and its first Curator of Experiments.

And that all gets even stranger when you consider that no portraits of Hooke exist. The modern portraits that have been done were based strictly on written descriptions of him.

So just how far did Newton go to oppose his rival and to erase him from history? Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Rita Greer
Royal Society: Hooke, Newton, and the ‘missing’ portrait
Institute of Physics: New portrait to mark Hooke’s place in history
io9: Was Robert Hooke really the greatest asshole in the history of science?