Tag Archives: Robert Hooke

Fly me to the moon using 17th century science

Apparently the first serious scientific thinking about space exploration (in Europe?) was written almost four hundred years ago by John Wilkins, a priest in the Church of England. This year, 2014, marks the four hundredth anniversary of Wilkins birth on January 1 and provides the occasion for a paper, Fly me to the moon? by Allan Chapman, historian and professor at Oxford University (UK).

From a Jan. 14, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily about this Jacobean space exploration programme,

The seventeenth century saw unprecedented changes in our understanding of the universe, spurred on by the invention of the telescope and the opportunity to study stars and planets in detail for the first time. Figures like Galileo are famous for their work not just in astronomy but in scientific experiments of many kinds that challenged established ideas and helped lead to the final demise of an Earth-centred view of the cosmos.

Now historian Prof. Allan Chapman of Wadham College, University of Oxford, has investigated a less well-known pioneer, John Wilkins, who was born 400 years ago this month. His achievements include a plan for ‘mechanical’ space travel, the popularisation of astronomy, managing to negotiate the politics and privations of the English Civil War and helping to found the Royal Society. Prof. Chapman will describe Wilkins’ life in a presentation at the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday 10 January [2014].

The January ?, 2014 Royal Astronomical Society press release, which originated the news item, adds some details about Wilkins,

John Wilkins was born in Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, on 1 January 1614. A graduate of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England, before travelling widely in the UK and to Germany to meet contemporary scholars. In 1638 he published ‘The Discovery of a New World’ and then in 1640 ‘A Discourse Concerning a New Planet’. The frontispiece of the later book shows his affinity for the Copernican model of the Solar system, with the Polish astronomer and Galileo both prominent. Just as significantly, the illustration shows the stars extending to infinity, rather than being in a then conventional ‘fixed sphere’ just beyond Saturn.

With the two works, Wilkins used clear, concise English to popularise a new understanding of the universe, arguing passionately against the theories of Aristotle that dated back 2000 years. He understood how these ancient ideas (for example that it was in the nature of heavy objects to fall, whereas light materials like smoke would rise) had been fundamentally undermined by scientific discoveries. The model of the cosmos had completely changed over the course of the century since Copernicus.

He [Chapman] sees John Wilkins as one of the first people to understand the power of mass communication for astronomy and as an intellectual ancestor of the late Sir Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan. “Wilkins was a pioneer of English language science communication. Anybody who could read the Bible or enjoy a Shakespeare play could relate to Wilkins’ vision of the new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo.’

Remarkably, Wilkins also speculated on space travel in his 1640 work. He considered the problems of travel to the Moon, including overcoming the gravitational pull of the Earth, the coldness of space and what the ‘sky voyagers’ would eat during a journey that he thought would take about 180 days.

In 1648, after becoming Master of Wadham College in Oxford, Wilkins expanded these ideas in ‘Mathematical Magick’, a book which describes machines and how systems of gears, pulleys and springs make at first sight insurmountable tasks possible. There he discusses a ‘flying chariot’, a ship like vehicle with bird’s wings, powered by springs and gears that would carry the astronauts on their six month journey. Robert Hooke’s posthumous diary suggests that he and Wilkins may even have built a model of this aircraft. [emphasis mine]

Chapman comments, “John Wilkins was the first person to discuss space travel from a scientific and technological perspective rather than as an aspect of fantasy literature. In his writing he initiates a ‘Jacobean Space Programme’, a serious proposal for travelling to other worlds”.

Here’s an image Chapman has created to illustrate what he believes was Wilkins vision for space travel,

http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/news-archive/254-news-2014/2380-the-jacobean-space-programme-the-life-of-john-wilkins [downloaded from http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/news-archive/254-news-2014/2380-the-jacobean-space-programme-the-life-of-john-wilkins]

Wilkins and Robert Hooke fly to the Moon from Wadham College. Wilkins left no picture of his “Flying Chariot”, so Prof. Chapman assembled components from written descriptions into this drawing. Credit: A. Chapman.[downloaded from http://www.ras.org.uk/news-and-press/news-archive/254-news-2014/2380-the-jacobean-space-programme-the-life-of-john-wilkins]

As one might expect from an historian, Chapman contextualizes Wilkins’ accomplishments within the major political events of the day,

1642 saw the onset of the English Civil War, a conflict that led to the abolition of the Anglican Church, the beheading of King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. A consummate diplomat, Wilkins even managed to marry Cromwell’s sister, took on the post at Wadham after opponents of Cromwell were purged and yet made the College a centre of tolerance that hosted a club of scientists.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1659, Wilkins was removed from his next post as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge but nonetheless went on to found and become Secretary of the Royal Society and was appointed Bishop of Chester in 1668. He died in 1671.

While it’s too late to attend Chapman’s Jan. 10, 2014 talk and there doesn’t seem to be an online video of the talk, there’s Chapman’s 6 pp. paper, Fly me to the moon? for anyone who want’s to know more.

Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton; scientists and a three-century old feud

When I first came across the story, the writer was unequivocal. Sir Isaac Newton had done everything in his power to remove a rival from the history books in a campaign that persisted over years and Newton was somewhat successful.

On the recent unveiling of a Robert Hooke (Newton’s rival) portrait, the latest materials I’ve found on this topic have taken a more measured approach to Newton’s role. From the Jan. 13, 2012 news item on Science Daily,

Chroniclers of his time called him ‘despicable’, ‘mistrustful’ and ‘jealous’, and a rivalrous Isaac Newton might have had the only surviving portrait of him burnt, but, three centuries on, Robert Hooke is now regarded as one of the great Enlightenment scientists.

It was Hooke’s dispute with Isaac Newton over credit for Newton’s work on gravity that tainted more than two hundred years of historical writing about Hooke, as it is chronicled that he fought for greater credit than Newton offered for the guiding principles which were later detailed in Newton’s Principia

Hooke’s name was so thoroughly muddied his tercentenary passed unmarked. (In the UK, that’s a major affront. From what I can tell, they celebrate all historical events and important persons. Missing some of Hooke’s importance would seem unthinkable and yet, it happened.)

From the Jan. 13, 2012 news item on the European Commission CORDIS news page,

But this was only part of the story and in recent years the scientific community has woken up to the fact that Hooke was in fact one of the great Enlightenment scientists. In an effort to further correct the skewed vision of history that proliferated for so long and give Hooke credit where credit is due, the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the United Kingdom has hung a new painting of the often forgotten scientist at its London headquarters.

The painting is the work of history artist Rita Greer who started her ‘Robert Hooke project’ in 2003. Her aim was to set the record straight by chronicling the life of the scientist.

Here’s an image of the painting,

Robert Hooke painted by Rita Greer

Here are more details about Hooke from the Institute of Physics (IOP) Jan. 12, 2012 news release,

Following Hooke’s death in the early 1700s, Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society and it was during his time in this capacity that, it is thought, the only portrait of Hooke was destroyed – it is unclear whether the portrait was destroyed on Newton’s command or simply left to perish.

With no visual sources for reference, Greer has used written sources – including the chronicles of both John Aubrey and Richard Waller – to create a likeness of Hooke with details fitting to his position in the history of science.

The image set to be hung at IOP shows Hooke holding a quill and a book in his right hand and a spring in his left. The spring represents one of Hooke’s defining successes – Hooke’s law of elasticity.

Hooke’s law states that the extension of a spring is in direct proportion to the load applied to it – a law which many materials obey and which culminated in the development of a balance spring.  Balance springs subsequently enabled the development of portable timepieces – the first watches.

The history artist Rita Greer says, “Robert Hooke, brilliant, ingenious seventeenth century scientist was brushed under the carpet of history by Sir Isaac Newton and his cronies. When he had his Tercentenary there wasn’t a single memorial to him anywhere. I thought it disgraceful as Hooke did many wonderful things for science.

Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS, a former President of the IOP and former Astronomer Royal, says, “Robert Hooke was a brilliant man of many parts of which one was physics. He was also remarkable for many advances and discoveries for which he did not receive adequate credit.

“With her fine portraits of Hooke, Rita Greer is going some way towards redressing the balance and bringing Hooke’s image to a wider audience. I think that Hooke would have been pleased with her persistence, as we are at the IOP.”

Robert Hooke was a key part of the group that went on to form the Royal Society, becoming the first Curator of Experiments for the Society in 1662.

Hooke has many physics-related credits to his name, including the construction of the vacuum pumps used in Boyle’s gas law experiments, building some of the earliest Gregorian telescopes and observing the rotations of Mars and Jupiter, deducing the wave theory of light, and being the first to suggest that matter expands when heated and that air is made of small particles.

Whether or not he intended to destroy the last portrait of Hooke (I’m inclined to think that was his intention) Newton didn’t manage to remove Hooke from the history books entirely but it certainly seems that he enjoyed three very successful centuries until Rita Greer came along.