Robert Hooke is the poster boy for the notion that it is not sufficient to have a good idea.
As I’ve lugged Lisa Jardin’s biography of Hooke around over the past few weeks, it’s been hard to explain who exactly Hooke was. You may remember him as the ugly cretin in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series.
But Hooke was so much more than that caricature. He was a brilliant polymath who coined the term "cell", redesigned much of London along with Christopher Wren, built instruments for Robert Boyle, and was long-standing curator of experiments in the early years of the Royal Society.
He dabbled in so many things. Had so many ideas. But no one I encountered had ever heard of him. Hooke consistently got himself 90% of the way there, but it was others that scored the goals.
"…Hooke is the man who almost made great discoveries now tied to the names and enduring fame of others: Boyle’s law of pressure of enclosed gases; Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational attraction; Huygen’s theory of the isochronous pendulum clock; Harrison’s longitude timekeeper.
It’s the notion that Hooke came up with Newton’s inverse square law of gravity, or inspired it, or something in between, that best illustrates this point. From my little research, it seems clear that there is something to Hooke’s claim. But it was undoubtedly Newton that had the mathematical brilliance to prove it, and for that he is remembered and Hooke is not.
It wasn’t enough to have the idea. The idea is nothing without execution.
"In Newton’s mind, priority lay with the person who had produced the mathematical proof of the elliptical motion of the planets, not the one who had proposed such a motion hypothetically in conversation, as part of a broad speculative discussion of planetary movement."
I really recommend The Curious Life of Robert Hooke by Lisa Jardine. I’ve now read a few of her books, loved them all, and am shooting for the set.