Newton, in his capacity as Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Trinity, did not make a successful teacher. "So few went to hear him," a secretary recalled later, "and fewer that understood him, that ofttimes he did in a manner, for want of hearers, read to the walls." The professor preferred to spend his time in his laboratory, which he built himself, and in the small garden outside his rooms. He became famous for his distractedness: he might remain in his bed all day, working out some problem in his mind; and if company came while he was wrestling with a new idea, he often went into another room, and quite forgot about his visitors. But his absent-mindedness never translated into unproductiveness, and his laboratory was a one-man hive of activity, a testament to science as a creative process, a place were countless hypotheses were tried and rejected, tried and modified, or tried and proved true.
In January 1672, Newton was elected to the Royal Society. Founded with Charles II's blessing in July of 1662, the Society was a community of scholars brought together for the purpose of "Improving Natural Knowledge." It included poets and architects as well as scientists and mathematicians among its original ninety-eight scholars, a number that grew considerably in subsequent decades. Most of the great thinkers of the age belonged to the Society, including the astronomer Edmund Halley (the namesake of Halley's Comet); the chemist Robert Boyle; the gifted architect and designer of St. Paul's Cathedral, Christopher Wren; and the greatest of the Restoration poets, John Dryden. Newton immediately felt at home; Trinity College in the 1670s had become a lonely place for him, and he reveled in this brotherhood of similarly great minds.
But in that brotherhood he found rivalry as well, in the person of Robert Hooke, seven years his senior. Hooke had belonged to the Society since its inception, and he possessed a brilliant and inventive mind, one that darted from discipline to discipline and discovery to discovery. His principle interests lay in mechanics, but he also built wonderful microscopes and did landmark research into the structure of plant cells; he invented dozens of contraptions, ranging from an early form of the telegraph to a diving bell; he studied combustion, musical notes, and did research into the nature of light. It was this last interest that first brought him into conflict with Newton: in February of 1672 Newton presented his first paper to the Royal Society, detailing his work on the nature of light and advancing his theory that white light was a composite of all the colors of the spectrum. Hooke had his own ideas about the nature of light--ideas that contradicted Newton's suggestion that light was composed of particles; Hooke himself believed that light traveled in waves. Thus he quickly damned Newton's paper by praising it only in condescending terms--he noted its "niceness and curiousity"--and then proceeding to attack Newton's methodology and conclusions. Hooke was hardly alone in this denouncement of Newton--Huygens, the great Danish scientist, also raised objections, as did a number of French Jesuits--but because of Hooke's prominence and his simultaneous work on optics, his criticisms had the most bite for Newton. Newton displayed the anger and defensiveness that would, in the future, be his typical response to any critique of his work. Not only did he deny any shortcomings in his theory, he also made extravagant claims for its genius and significance, declaring it "the oddest if not the most considerable detection which hath hitherto beene made in the operations of Nature." Laced with this sort of hyperbole, his correspondence with Hooke became increasingly acrimonious, and he went so far as to threaten, in March of 1673, to withdraw from the Society. He only remained at the pressing of the Secretary, Henry Oldenburg, who assured him that the Fellows indeed held him in high esteem. However, even with Newton's self-confidence restored, his rivalry with Hooke persisted.
In a sense, it is unsurprising that these two men should have come into conflict. Their personalities, similar in their quantity of ambition and pride, differed markedly elsewhere: Newton was devout, and read his Bible daily, while Hooke practiced religion as a mere formality; Newton lived out his days as a bachelor, and seems not to have been interested in sex, while Hooke was a sensualist, who slept with his housekeepers and developed a grand passion for his niece. More importantly, their approaches to science were diametrically opposed: Hooke delighted in his reputation as a scientific butterfly, flitting from problem to problem, making great discoveries but never pausing to work out what they meant in the larger picture; Newton, by contrast, painstakingly worked problems to death, and used his findings to create vast systems of thought. In the end, of course, his painstaking approach reaped great dividends, and his systems are with us, in modified forms, to this day, while Hooke's practical inventions have been forgotten. But in the early 1670s Hooke was the more famous man, and Newton smarted under his criticisms.
The two men seem to have made an effort to patch up their differences, however: they exchanged letters in January and February (although these are littered with subtle barbs), and when Hooke succeeded Oldenburg as Secretary of the Royal Society, Newton wrote to congratulate. But soon another issue was looming, one that would precipitate their final break--Newton's work on his theory of universal gravitation.