I will contend that Britain was to science what America's founding fathers were to democracy and China was to culture; a confluence of brilliant minds who dramatically changed the world. And I intend to do it briefly.
Like all great science stories, this involves a scary comet and a fire and a plague; Maslow disagreed that good things result from bad and created a hierarchy of needs to try and show it, but trauma often breeds triumph. As the saying goes, a generation of Borgia's murdering and plotting and poisoning gave us the Renaissance whereas 500 years of Swiss peace only gave us the cuckoo clock.
And so some of the greatest achievements in science history happened because bad things happened and some people hated each other, and nothing covers the scope of it all better than the upcoming Genius of Britain DVD. The first episode covers the period during the Civil War (bad), the plague (bad), a comet (bad) and the Great Fire of London (bad) and how five men made great advancements, sometimes as a result of those bad things; for example, a lot of corpses means anatomical research that might not otherwise be possible for a scientist on a budget. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. To start, I'll touch on someone no one hated, because it would have been a disaster to do so, since he had been the boyhood friend of the King of England.
Christopher Wren, architect of the scientific age. Like all great scientists of the past, Wren was a polymath and an experimental philosopher, the kind of thing that isn't really possible today, because philosophers don't want to do math. Like all five under discussion, he believed the world could be explained according to natural laws and that superstitions could be invalidated by experiments. Whereas Archimedes was able to show he could move the world with a proper level, Wren was able to take us firmly out of the dark ages using a spleen.
The spleen, you see, was regarded as some sort of mystical organ - the theory of humours said black bile determined the physical fitness of people and and black bile came from the spleen. To prove it was rubbish, Wren cut open a dog (yes, yes, it was the age of bold experimentation) removed its spleen, sewed him back up, and the dog lived. No spleen needed. If that is not enough, he dissected the eye of a horse to find out how the lens worked and, doing so, was able to calibrate his telescope more precisely than anyone had done in the past. This would be important later because he would be the architect of the Royal Observatory (and St. Paul's Cathedral, but this is about science) - more importantly, he was a founding member of the 'Invisible College' group that would dramatically reshape science through the Royal Society in decades to come.
Robert Boyle, like Wren, was a member of that Invisible College and also a devoted experimentalist. He did not want to hear any theory unless it could be verified with observation. He was a devout man, he simply wanted to understand the ways of Creation, and this belief is what inspired the work he is best known for by chemists today; Boyle's Law, PV = k, where k is a constant, P is pressure and V is volume. Franciscus Linus, a Jesuit scientist, argued that the pressure of air was too nominal to do what Boyle's observations believed it could do, so Boyle, who cataloged everything, set out to find the answer.
He created a device, the first vacuum pump in Britain, and was able to show the 'spring' of air, its ability to compress and contract and that pressure and volume vary inversely. He could make water boil at low temperature, for example, but most importantly he was able to show that air was part of an invisible world all around us - and it had laws that were hidden as well, they just needed to be found.
He proudly showed his pneumatic engine to a gathering of the Royal Society, using a bird to show members what was happening. The bird, like all animals in experiments of the time, was doomed, as shown in the picture below, but another interesting note is that the only person who could get the infernal thing to work was his assistant at the time, a fellow named...
17th century scientists were tough on critters. Here is Boyle's bird getting the pneumatic engine treatment in “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump” by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768.
Robert Hooke. Hooke, like any number of great scientists, before and since, was a prickly sort. It is known he was jealous, annoying and so paranoid he wrote his experiments in code. It was also believed he was short, ugly and hunchbacked but we have no way to know because there are no pictures of him - more on that in a bit.
Whereas Wren thought about the big world, Hooke was thinking about the small - as in fleas. Like the others, his name is obscure but his contribution to science is without question. Like the others, he was a polymath and his contributions range from the obscure-to-many (Hooke’s law, the stretching of a spring is directly proportional to the deforming force) to the more well known, like the theory of combustion, the universal joint and an early prototype of the respirator. But he is most famous in science for his work in the Micrographia, where he created a compound microscope to show the amazing symmetry of nature, even at the tiniest levels. And then faithfully recreated it in magnificent detail.
Here, from Observation XVIII of the Micrographia
. . . I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular. . . . these pores, or cells, . . . were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this. . .he has coined the term cells and discovered plant cells. Hooke is, essentially, the father of microbiology, though he acknowledged that his friend Wren did much of the work and must have credit for some of the art.
Hooke was not content to just theorize. He did plenty of self-experimentation, an endeavor frowned on in today's science climate. Purgatives, emetics, mercury, absinthe - you name it, he ingested it, and it took its toll, but he was crucial to the success of the Royal Society because he was the jack-of-all-trades experimentalist/engineer.
In modern pop culture parlance, those of you who know your sparkly vampire lore are either Team Edward or Team Jacob. To science historians, however, you are either Team Hooke or Team...
Newton. Isaac Newton made Hooke look positively sunny by disposition. Whereas the previous three are all collegial members of the Royal Society, Newton instead muttered his way around Cambridge, he of the crazy hair and the poverty which forced him to empty bedpans for the rich kids in order to eat. Abandoned at age 3, Newton had a hard life and a laser-light focus on things that interested him - and everything interested him. Alchemy, mysticism, the paranormal, he wanted to investigate everything. Unlike the others, though, he believed in math ahead of observation and wanted math to be the language of science. But the math didn't exist, so he would end up having to invent that also.
It's not that he didn't believe in experimentation, it was just a stepping stone to answers about the fundamental laws that governed the hidden world. When he wanted to learn about vision, he experimented by poking himself in the eye and when he noted spots of color as he did so, he set up a light and a prism - yet he did not believe, as others did, that the prism created the separate colors from light and instead he was able to mathematically prove that light is not 'pure', it is created from other colors. He began to believe, in his arrogance, that maths could explain all natural phenomena.
But his career was not without setbacks either. Like many of this day, he felt he was smarter than everyone else but still craved some legitimacy. And so he attempted to submit a paper to the Royal Society, on optics, but Hooke, who had a need to stick his fingers in everything the Royal Society did, tore it to pieces. They disagreed on light, with Newton showing that colors combined to make white light while Hooke contended colors resulted from distortions of white light. Newton would not forget the slight but, at least on the exterior, he wrote in a letter to Hooke what became one of the most famous passages in science: "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants."
Still, the animosity would linger. Newton knew he had done the math while Hooke believed if he had thought it, the credit was his. And some agree in the physics world and say Hooke deserves more credit than he gets but, to be fair to Newton, revisionists love to perpetuate myths of the oppressed underdog and Hooke took credit for everything everyone did. He had a fight with Christiaan Huygens over who deserved credit for inventing the balance-spring watch and a fight with Adrien Auzout over microscope lenses. By the time he later tried to claim credit for Newton's inverse square law of celestial motion, even his own friends did not believe him. Newton was still annoyed enough he would not accept the Presidency of the Royal Society until after Hooke died, though he was re-elected for 24 years once he got it. He was also the first scientist to be knighted.
But in the decade before the Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, after the issue with the optics paper and with the greatest scientist of the period alienated from the Royal Society and those other great minds aligned against him, the future looked bleak for Newton, even as Lucasian professor at Cambridge.
He is now arguably the greatest scientist in history, yet he would barely be known at all except for the efforts of...
Edmund Halley. What? Edmund Halley? The comet guy? Well, sure. Halley was a young, dashing jack-of-all-trades. He was a facilitator with an eye for science and a practical streak. He was well-liked, cussed like a sailor and had a taste for adventure.
As a young man, he set out to map the stars in the southern hemisphere, ostensibly to help the Royal Navy. Using nothing but a sextant and math, he made a comprehensive chart and returned home in 1678 a national hero, was given a Royal Society fellowship at age 22 and Oxford was told by royal edict to give him the degree he interrupted to go on the journey.
But he was a smart man in his own right. In mapping those stars, he had some questions he did not know how to answer. Nor did other smart men such as Hooke. Orbits, to Halley, were clearly elliptical but Kepler's third law said the attraction of the Sun on the planets was as the inverse of the square of the distance between them - and Halley offered 40 shillings in books if anyone could prove how that will be elliptical.
Four months passed with no answer to his challenge. Surely Hooke would not ask Newton, arguably England's greatest scientist, since he had spurned the only man who had the math talent to realize his dreams. And Wren the architect was busy with St. Paul's Cathedral and other works after the Great Fire of London.
Since 1666, Newton had outlined early versions of his three laws of motion and the law giving the centrifugal force on a body moving uniformly in a circular path. From his law of centrifugal force and Kepler's third law of planetary motion, Newton had deduced the inverse-square law.
So visit Newton Halley did, and we are told the discourse was icy but with Halley's flair for diplomacy and the offhand comment that he believed Hooke was close to a solution, Newton disclosed he already had the preliminaries worked out, but could not locate it - and then later delivered a recollection which became De Motu Corporum in Gyrum (On the Motion of Revolving Bodies).
But Halley also saw something extraordinary had happened that could go well beyond De Motu, and so
Halley ... had the genius to recognise the even greater mathematical genius of Newton, to urge him to write the Principia Mathematica, and then pay for the costs of publication out of his own pocket because the Royal Society was currently broke ...In April 1686 Newton presented the first third of the Principia and the rest is science history.
- H E Bell, The Savilian professors' houses and Halley's observatory at Oxford, Notes and Records Roy. Soc. London 16 (2) (1961), 179-186.
Halley it not famous just for bringing Newton to the world, of course. The comet which now bears his name had been known since at least 240 B.C. and had even made a famous appearance in British history - 1066 A.D. before the Battle of Hastings, which ended Anglo-Saxon rule of England and was also the last time the island was conquered by a foreign power - but Halley was the person who discovered the comet was periodic and even accurately predicted its next appearance. And he did it all using the math of Newton.
Halley's comet won't be back for another five decades but we still feel its presence, just like we feel the presence of the great man himself - the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower, created by material from Halley's Comet as it travels on its 76 year orbit through the solar system, peaked last week.
But it was Halley's ability to band together an illustrious 'team of rivals' that may make Halley the greatest of them all.
Am I wrong in my beliefs? I was inspired to write this short piece because I received the Genius of Britain DVD produced by Channel 4, which is absolutely brilliant in both pace and execution. It was issued last year but I only received the review copy this month because it is now making its way to America. Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and others are pitch perfect in delivering interesting overviews of how British science started the scientific age that led to the industrial revolution, modern transportation, evolution and more modern work.
I can't recommend it highly enough. Like science, this is one thing the Brits got right.