The story of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and Edmond Halley (1656-1742) and an exploration of “how science might have developed if Isaac Newton had never lived.”
Newton was as revered as anyone during his time and will remain a towering figure even to readers of this provocative dual biography, in which the husband-and-wife team of science writers maintain that the great man had feet of clay. The Gribbins (A History of Science in 100 Experiments, 2016, etc.) clearly admire their subjects and dislike Newton—not only for his personality, which most historians agree was execrable, but also his integrity (of lack thereof). They make a good case. A prodigy as a youth, Hooke came to London as a teenager and became the “best experimental scientist of his time, the leading microscopist of the seventeenth century, an astronomer of the first rank, and he developed an understanding of earthquakes, fossils, and the history of the earth that would not be surpassed for a century.” Newton claimed credit for many of Hooke’s discoveries, including his First Law of Motion, the concept of gravity as a universal attractive force, and the inverse square law of gravity. Hooke’s reputation has revived over the past century, and he has been called Britain’s Leonardo da Vinci. Halley, known these days only for the eponymous comet, was another spectacularly energetic polymath who produced the first atlas of the southern skies, captained and navigated the first official scientific voyage to the southern seas, and produced a steady stream of scientific observations. Perhaps most important, he got along well with Newton and prodded him to write the Principia, paying for its publication.
There is no chance that the authors will knock Newton off his pedestal, but they present a well-documented argument that he owed more to the ideas of others than he admitted.