Nod to history's 2nd place finishers

What is it like to be the second smartest person in the world?

Let us set the scene. It is England, in the mid-1600s. A decade of strife between Parliament and Crown has left one king headless and his son, Charles II, leading a restored court. London has suffered plague and fire.

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Science is being born. The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge is collecting every clever English-speaking person, and exchanging letters with half the savants of the rest of Europe.

At the centre of this is one of history's odd also-rans, Robert Hooke, the society's official experimenter.

Never heard of him? Neither have about 99 per cent of the people around the world.

This is despite the fact that he worked on the theory of gravity, discovered the principles of elasticity, drew the rings of Saturn and craters of the moon, invented a key piece of clockwork, correctly theorized how fossils form, speculated about extinction 150 years before it was confirmed, and identified and named biological cells.

Why is someone who worked in so many fields - in addition to being a major architect and city planner for London - now a footnote?

Because he happened to live and work alongside Sir Isaac Newton.

Hooke speculated about gravity and the nature of light at the same time that Newton was formulating his own, more complete and accurate works on the same subjects.

What must being Robert Hooke have been like? In his own lifetime he was famous and not exactly considered a dunce. His book Micrographia was a bestselling collection of illustrations and observations made through a microscope, a first glimpse for thousands of people of a world unseen to the human eye.

But today everyone has a mental image of Newton, even if it is just the urban legend involving an apple tree. There isn't even a surviving portrait of Hooke. He is faceless and if not forgotten, deep in shadow.

History is scattered with these half-forgotten people. Alfred Russell Wallace developed the theory of evolution independently of Charles Darwin, and Darwin published his Origin of Species largely because Wallace was about to go public himself.

Tenzing Norgay was the second person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Buzz Aldrin was the second human on the surface of the Moon. Robert Scott was the second person to reach the South Pole, and is largely remembered for not making it back.

St. Jude is the other Judas who palled around with Jesus. It is not for nothing that he is the patron saint of lost causes and is known as the saint of last resort.

Some of these forgotten almost-got-there-first folks will be remembered better in the future. Wallace's profile has been on the upswing, and Tenzing Norgay's name should become more famous as more people realize that getting to the summit of Everest was a team effort, as Edmund Hilary always said.

Hooke himself was a discoverer of the lost. Before him, it was thought that fossils were "sports of nature" that formed spontaneously in rocks. But he saw that they were hints to an unknown past.

"There have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find none at present," he wrote, "and that 'tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning."

Hooke was a new kind, indeed. Let that kind not be forgotten.

Matthew Claxton is a reporter for the Langley Advance.

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