Scientists Gone Wild

“He had the greatest mind since Einstein, but it didn’t work quickly. He admitted his slowness often. Maybe it was because he had so great a mind that it didn’t work quickly… I watched him hit that ball. I watched it bounce of the edge of the table and move into the zero-gravity volume, heading in one particular direction. For when Priss sent that ball toward the zero-gravity volume – and the tri-di films bear me out – it was already aimed directly at Bloom’s heart! Accident? Coincidence? …Murder?” The Billiard Ball – Isaac Asimov

In “The Billiard Ball”, first published in the March 1967 issue of If, Asimov presents a story in which scientific competition rises to the level of murder. Maybe.  Asimov understood that scientists are human beings, and can be arrogant, petty, cruel, and filled with hatred. These traits, in turn, can make for a compelling science fiction story. And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s plenty to be found.

Lord Kelvin, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, accused Wilhelm Roentgen, who announced the discovery of X-rays in 1895, of fraud. He argued that the cathode-ray tube, which Roentgen had used in his discovery, had been in use for a decade, and therefore if X-rays actually existed, someone would have already discovered them. True, he eventually came around and apologized, but calling a fellow scientist a fraud is pretty serious.

But Kelvin was actually the least of Roentgen’s attackers. Roentgen had borrowed a cathode-ray tube from physicist Philipp Lenard, who had been exploring fluorescence using cathode-ray tubes before Roentgen, although he failed to pursue its origins or photographically document his findings. Lenard became angry that Roentgen hadn’t acknowledged his work in developing some of the technology that lead to Roentgen’s discovery, and for years he both demanded credit for the discovery of X-rays while simultaneously (and wrongly) arguing that they were just a kind of cathode ray with new properties instead of a different phenomenon. Lenard’s attacks on Roentgen lasted until Lenard died in 1947, and because of the attacks, Roentgen left orders for all his papers concerning X-rays prior to 1900 burned, unopened, upon his death. Lenard went on to be an early member of the Nazi party, an advisor to Adolf Hitler, Chief of Aryan physics, and a fierce opponent of Albert Einstein and “the Jewish fraud” of relativity.

Then there’s English inventor and scientist Robert Hooke. Hooke was a polymath, and is often referred to as the English Leonardo Da Vinci. He discovered Hooke’s Law (the extension of a spring is proportional to the applied force), contributed to knowledge of respiration, insect flight and the properties of gases, coined the term “cell” to describe the individual units making up larger organisms, invented the universal joint and the anchor escapement in clocks and numerous other mechanical devices, his work on gravitation preceded Newton’s, his Micrographia was the first book on microscopy, his astronomical observations were some of the best seen at the time, and he was an architect of distinction and a Surveyor for the City of London after the Great Fire.

But he was also an ass, especially when it came to Isaac Newton.

Hooke and Newton were involved in a dispute over the idea of the force of gravity following an inverse square relationship to define the elliptical orbits of planets, as well as Newton’s theory of light and colors. In 1672, Newton was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and his first letter on Light and Colors was read to the Society. Hooke, at the time a respected senior scientist and Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, attacked Newton’s theory, and also claimed that he had invented a reflecting telescope before Newton (Newton had actually invented it in 1668). Newton fought back, and won, but in In January 1676, Hooke again attacked Newton, alleging that Newton had plagiarized Hooke’s Micrographia, which contained Hooke’s own theory of light.

Despite the attacks, Hooke and Newton corresponded and in private correspondence, Newton had shared calculations that, he believed, showed that the path of a body falling to Earth would be a spiral. Unfortunately, Hooke realized that Newton’s argument only held true if the body were precisely on the equator, and in the more general case the path would be an ellipse. In 1679, just after Newton’s mother had died, Hooke exposed the error to the Royal Society, and after briefly responding to Hooke, he stopped writing anyone for over a year.

In 1686, when the first book of Newton’s ‘Principia’ was presented to the Royal Society, Hooke claimed that Newton had obtained from him the “notion” of “the rule of the decrease of Gravity, being reciprocally as the squares of the distances from the Center”. Only the diplomatic intervention of Edmund Halley persuaded Newton to allow the publication of the final volume of the Principia trilogy, with Halley telling Newton that Hooke was merely making a public fool of himself, and Newton removing every reference to Hooke in the volume.

But before you feel too bad for Newton, don’t, because Newton could be just as much of an ass as Hooke was.

John Flamsteed may not be a name that’s familiar to you, but was Astronomer Royal, and over 30 years had measured the positions of thousands of stars with a precision far exceeding anything undertaken before him. When Newton needed observations on the ‘double’ comet of 1680, he turned to Flamsteed, who provided him with the observations. There were some small errors in the data Flamsteed sent to Newton, and Flamsteed attempted to make amends by carrying out some of the calculations that Newton needed for himself. Newton, however, Newton caustically informed Flamsteed that he needed his observations, not his calculations. Feeling mistreated Flamsteed threatened to withhold his data.

Newton needed these calculations for a new section he was planning for the second edition of the Principia, around 1703, on a “Theory of the Moon”, so using his courtly influence, he persuaded Queen Anne’s husband, George, to commission a royal star catalogue, to be printed by the Royal Society. Flamsteed could hardly refuse this commission from his direct employer; but the moment he handed his draft data over to the Royal Society it was certain to go straight to Newton, who now dominated there. Flamsteed stalled, publishing the data as slowly as possible, and making certain it wasn’t the data that Newton needed. When Flamsteed argued with Newton over an error in Newton’s measurement of the size of stars in Opticks, Newton deliberately excluded Flamsteed from the discussions about the publication of his catalogue, and his request for a £2,000 grant to purchase a new telescope was rejected under Newton’s influence. In 1708, Prince George died, and the star catalogue project died with him. In retaliation, when Flamsteed’s membership of the Royal Society lapsed in 1709, Newton refused to renew it, effectively expelling Flamsteed.

But Newton wasn’t through with Flamsteed. He needed Flamsteed’s data, and by 1711, had persuaded Queen Anne to take up the mantle of sponsor of her late husband’s project. In a  note to Flamsteed in 1711, Newton threatened that “[If you] make any excuses or unnecessary delays it will be taken for an indirect refusal to comply with Her Majesty’s order.”

The matter came to a head with the eclipse of 4 July, 1711. Observations of the eclipse would be invaluable to Newton’s calculations, but Flamsteed refused a direct order to observe it. He was ordered to explain himself before a panel of the Royal Society, and the council that was to stand judgment over Flamsteed was selected by the President of the Royal Society (Newton) and consisted of Newton and two of his most loyal supporters. The council, to no one’s surprise, ordered the immediate publication of all Flamsteed’s hard-won data.

Flamsteed’s masterwork, Historia Coelestis, was finally published in 1712, against Flamsteed’s wishes and without his involvement. The following year, Newton issued the second edition of his Principia, compete with a lunar theory based on Flamsteed’s data.

Scientists gone wild, indeed.


1. Asimov, Isaac, 1986. The Edge of Tomorrow. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Assoc Llc

2. Kevles, Bettyann H., 1998. Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

3. Chapman, Allan, 2004. England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

4. Clark, David H. and Clark, Stephen H. P., 2001. Newton’s Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman

5. Grant, John, 2007. Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science. Wisley, Surrey, England: Facts, Figures & Fun

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