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Robert Hooke and the uncertainty principle

In Saturday’s WSJ (available by subscription) British science writer John Gribbin wrote,

"Micrographia [by Robert Hooke] is the first great scientific book written in English, handsomely illustrated (many of the drawings were by Robert Hooke's friend Christopher Wren) and easily accessible to the layman. Samuel Pepys got an early copy and sat up reading it until 2 a.m., noting in his diary that was 'the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life'. Hooke described not only the microscopic world but also astronomy, geology and the nature of light, setting out ideas that Isaac Newton later lifted and passed off as his own."

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson wrote,

In 1683, Halley, Hooke and Wren were dining in London when the conversation turned to the motions of celestial objects. It was known that planets were inclined to orbit in a particular kind of oval known as an ellipse – ‘a very specific and precise curve’ – to quote Richard Feynman, but it wasn’t understood why. Wren generously offered a prize. . .to whichever of the men could provide a solution.

Hooke, who was well known for taking credit for ideas that weren’t necessarily his own, claimed that he had solved the problem already but declined now to share it on the interesting and inventive grounds that it would rob others of the satisfaction of discovering the answer for themselves.”

Hmm. Not for the last time has the principle of uncertainty left its mark on history.


Still many things about Hooke and Newton are pretty definitely known, and they are astounding. We described them (as accurately as we could) in the Ingenious Timeline.