For all his achievements, however, Halley's greatest contribution to human knowledge may simply have been to take part in a modest scientific wager with two other worthies of his day: Robert Hooke, who is perhaps best remembered now as the first person to describe a cell, and the great and stately Sir Christopher Wren, who was actually an astronomer first and architect second, though that is not often generally remembered now.
In 1683, Halley, Hooke, and Wren were dining in London when the conversation turned to the motions of celestial objects. It was known that planets were inclined to orbit in a particular kind of oval known as an ellipse—"a very specific and precise curve," to quote Richard Feynman—but it wasn't understood why. Wren generously offered a prize worth forty shillings (equivalent to a couple of weeks' pay) to whichever of the men could provide a solution.
Hooke, who was well known for taking credit for ideas that weren't necessarily his own, claimed that he had solved the problem already but declined now to share it on the interesting and inventive grounds that it would rob others of the satisfaction of discovering the answer for themselves. He would instead "conceal it for some time, that others might know how to value it." If he thought any more on the matter, he left no evidence of it. Halley, however, became consumed with finding the answer, to the point that the following year he traveled to Cambridge and boldly called upon the university's Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Isaac Newton, in the hope that he could help.