Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and Lessons In Collaboration

Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and Lessons In Collaboration

Sir Isaac Newton is easily regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all-time, yet his contributions may just as easily have not existed.

If it weren’t for his friend Edmond Halley, Newton may never have shared his brilliant discoveries of gravitation and the eventual publication of the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

But before we get there, we need to understand the situation, which brings us to the life of another influential, yet not nearly as popular scientist, Robert Hooke.

Hooke is most famous for coining the term cell in reference to the building block of biology, but he had a brilliant career in his own right. His renowned publication Micrographia, as well as Hooke’s Law on elasticity are just a few of his personal accomplishments.

So why do we hardly ever hear about Robert Hooke? Primarily because Hooke had a broad and varied range of work and ideas. As such, he wanted credit for them all, even when they were merely half-hearted conjectures.

This of course meant he clashed with many scientists over claims of who discovered things first. It is exactly this sort of quarrel that led to a poor relationship between Hooke and Newton.

A letter from 1676 written by Newton to Hooke, is key in understanding the relationship between the two. In the letter, Newton argued that he was to be credited for a discovery in optics, while Hooke of course made the same claim.

This put Newton in a terrible place and he soon thereafter locked himself away, spending his days in solitude. He continued to work, but didn’t share his brilliant ideas and discoveries with anyone. That is until Edmund Halley showed up on his doorstep.



alley was curious about proving Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and asked Newton if he would discuss his understanding of the phenomenon. Newton immediately exclaimed he had already proved the laws, and shared his calculations shortly thereafter.

Upon seeing the calculations, Halley was convinced that Newton had to share his findings with the Royal Society and later into the publication that we now know as Principia. Not able to find funding for his publication, Halley backed it financially, as he understood the importance of his work.

It may seem like Halley were simply taking advantage of an opportunity, but he was a successful scientist in his own right, from his invention of the diving bell to his publications on the solar system.

Instead, Halley was a friend and colleague trying to help another brilliant mind share his ideas. With the help of Halley, Isaac Newton published one of the most important pieces of work ever and was well on his way to becoming a celebrated scientist.

When you contrast this to Hooke, it is easy to see where things went wrong. Hooke was far more protective of his ideas and hardly open to fair and open collaboration.

It is only made more clear, when it was found that Hooke proclaimed that Newton should give him credit for the entirety of his work in Principia, because he believed he never would have made the progress he did without Hooke’s previous work.

While Newton acknowledged that Hooke was one of many indirect influences, his ask was overreaching and only widened the enormous gap between the two. What becomes clear is how each individual worked with others and the impact that had.

Hooke was almost looking for fights and as such, has been largely forgotten in history. On the other hand, Newton was far more open to collaboration, which unlocked his potential.

To think, if not for Halley on Newton’s doorstep back in August of 1684, we may never have gotten a glimpse of the genius that Isaac Newton possessed.

I believe the history of Newton and Hooke teaches us a few important lessons when it comes to collaboration.

1. Accept help when it is needed

We may not know it at the time, but having a helping hand or some friendly motivation is exactly what we may need to get out of our own way.

Far too often we reject help because we think we can do it all or because we have too much pride. Be humble. The opportunities lost from rejecting help may be bigger than we realize.

2. Share your ideas, don’t hide them

As we see from Hooke and from Newton’s Principia, sharing your ideas changes everything. There is no benefit to hide them away or keep them to yourself.

Especially when they can change the world and propel ideas and fields forward.

So when you have an idea or discovery, good or bad, put it out into the world and see where it goes. Don’t be afraid to share.

3. Don’t pick fights

Hooke’s biggest flaw was probably his abrasive nature and how he simply rubbed people the wrong way. This no doubt came back to bite him, as is seen by his portrayal in history.

Hooke was a brilliant scientist and has even been called England’s Leonardo, a Renaissance Man in his own right, yet his actions towards others greatly inhibited his influence and his contribution.

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.Isaac Newton

Hooke died in 1703 and soon after, Newton assumed the role of President of the Royal Society.

It’s not hard to imagine that Newton had something to do with the lack of acclaim towards Hooke in the following years. After all, one of the more juicy rumors is that Newton had the only portrait of Hooke burned when he was serving as president.

More importantly, these two brilliant scientists became polar opposites in history, where Hooke became despised, Newton became celebrated. A lot of this has to do with how they worked with others.

Collaboration is a vital skill that can be powerful when done right and destructive when done wrong. Follow in the footsteps of Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton. Understand how to work together and reap the rewards.

Image via flickr