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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man…
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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London

by Lisa Jardine

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I became interested in the life of Robert Hooke because of the way he’s portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle; he’s made to be a very important figure in the scientific renaissance. Lisa Jardine would probably agree with that, but her book is frustrating. Her introduction presents it as a companion volume to her life of Christopher Wren and it shares the virtues and vices of the earlier book.


On the plus side, Hooke did have an interesting character and it’s well documented. He was an obsessive diarist and a compulsive self-medicator, leading to written records of almost every time he purged, vomited, blew his nose or had an orgasm. (For this last, he often used the astrological character for Pisces; I’m a Pisces myself, but I don’t brag about it). He also notes the effect of a curious Indian herb, ganga, brought back from Ceylon by a sea captain acquaintance, as taking away memory, making the user laugh a lot, leading to a good sleep, and causing excessive hunger. The sacrifices people made for science back then! Ms. Jardine also makes a reasonably good case that a portrait long assumed to of a contemporary botanist is actually Hooke, which, if correct, would be an exciting bit of historical detective work - especially since no other picture of Hooke exists.


On the minus side, there’s a lot of the same problems that the Wren book had. Ms. Jardine desperately needs the services of a sadistic editor; somebody who will ruthlessly make her put her work in some sort of accessible order. It bounces around from Hooke’s feud with Newton over priority of the inverse square law to Hooke’s childhood on the Isle of Wight to the clock-driven equatorial quadrant. And the second minus is the almost complete lack of scientific and technical background information. The book’s title refers to Hooke’s role in surveying the area devastated by The Great Fire of London, but there’s no discussion of the actual mechanics of surveying in 1667. We learn that Hooke built a zenith telescope in his rooms, but we’re never told what a zenith telescope is or what it’s used for. There’s several comments that Hooke was the only person who could get Robert Boyle’s vacuum pump to work reliably, but nothing about why the vacuum pump was anything other than a curiosity or even a mention of Boyle’s Law. As for the Wren volume, perhaps Ms. Jardine assumes all her readers are scientifically literate and therefore don’t need the background, but if so she’s cutting herself off from a lot of potential readers.


Worth it if you can get it from the remainder table or the library, but I’d get a second book or read an encyclopedia article (or the Baroque Cycle) to get a little better handle on why Hooke was important scientifically. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 26, 2017 |
A great man who nonetheless was terrible at finishing things. Anticipated much of the beginnings of the scientific revolution, but lacked the math skills to realize them and be remembered for them. A key figure in the reconstruction of London after the fire. Also, a boastful and cantankerous man, unable to back down or admit error, and far too much taken with self medication of highly dangerous substances. The biography makes you wish there was more material remaining to write a better story. As it is, in order to fill out the pages, there are a lot of trifling stories, the sum effect to somehow make Hooke seem less interesting.
3.5 stars oc ( )
  starcat | Aug 11, 2014 |
Robert Hooke's name is familiar to most of us only because of "Hooke's Law", f = - kx, which describes the potential for a harmonic oscillator. I became aware of some of the other contributions of this remarkable man by reading one of Lisa Jardine's previous books, "Ingenious Pursuits", which was my pick for May, 2000. When I saw her more extensive biography of Hooke, I was eager to read more. Hooke was involved in most of the scientific, technological, and public issues of the London of his time. As Curator of Experiments for the newly-founded Royal Society, he was expected to come up with a new experiment for each monthly meeting of the organization. These were not simple "demonstrations" of known principles, but experiments at the forefront of science, and most of them required the invention and construction of new instruments. By all accounts, Hooke was an absolute genius at this. More incredible is that he was able to meet this obligation at the same time as he worked as an assistant to Robert Boyle, and with Christopher Wren to supervise the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666. Because the reconstruction included the widening of many streets, there were innumerable conflicts over property rights. Hooke managed to keep all of these things going, and to also design several important public buildings. Hooke also had the ability to offend. Isaac Newton got so angry with him over the theory of gravity, that he had Hooke's name removed from the minutes of the Royal Society and campaigned against his receiving credit for his scientific contributions. ( )
  hcubic | Jan 27, 2013 |
Like Ariosto’s Astolpho journeying to the moon to restore Orlando’s lost wits, Lisa Jardine has undertaken a noble quest to restore Robert Hooke’s reputation. A simple list of his discoveries and achievements, and his contributions to the consolidation of scientific methodology, would suggest that his story would one of those with which every educated person was familiar. However, for various reasons, and not least his own irascibility, he is now generally overlooked while his contemporaries and associates such as Christopher Wren, Edmond Halley, Robert Boyle, John Flamsteed and, Hooke’s particular bête noire, Isaac Newton are widely recognised as part of a golden age of British scientific discovery.
His early years were passed on the Isle of Wight, but at the age of thirteen he was sent to London to complete his education, and attended Westminster School and then Christ Church College at Oxford. Like so many of his contemporaries he showed signs of becoming a great polymath, showing a reasonable facility with mathematics (he was eventually appointed Professor of Geometry at Gresham College) augmented by immense dexterity at designing and building apparatus for the numerous scientific experiments conducted by his principal patron Robert Boyle. As his reputation grew the demand for his instruments swelled exponentially, and he became particularly renowned for his ability to design and build telescopes. He then diverted this ability to developing microscopes which, coupled with his exceptional skill as a draughtsman, enabled him to produce exquisite drawings of fleas and other insects. He also identified anatomical structures (he was the first person to coin the term “cell” for the tiny units of which animal and plant organisms are constructed), and produced beautiful representations of the surfaces of hair follicles.
In the meantime he had also been experimenting with the construction of timepieces. As a teenager he had disassembled a family clock in order to study its mechanism, and then made one of his own constructed entirely of wood. (The legendary John Harrison would later copy this childhood feat – one of the steps that set him towards his development of the famous chronometers). As instrument makers everywhere grappled with the problem of designing a timepiece of sufficient accuracy to enable reliable calculations of longitude Hooke made the tactical error of confiding in one of his fellow members of the Royal Society, who in turn inadvertently (?) communicated Hooke’s methodology to Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch rival who was also addressing this thorny issue. This led to a painful, and ultimately unresolved, dispute about the patent rights for the concept of the coil spring to replace the pendulum in accurate time pieces.
Similarly, Hooke considered that his classic book Micrographia (published in 1665) had first expounded the theory that celestial bodies were attracted or repulsed by a form of gravitational force. The following year, his lecture entitled “On Gravity” outlined two further principles:
“1. That all the heavenly bodies have not only a gravitation of their parts to their own proper centre, but that they also mutually attract each other within their spheres of action.
2. That all bodies having a simple motion, will continue to move in a straight line, unless continually deflected from it by some extraneous force, causing them to describe a circle, an ellipse, or some other curve.
However, crucially, Hooke made no reference to the inverse square law that Newton subsequently identified. Aggrieved that he had received no acknowledgement for his work in the field, Hooke claimed that Newton had stolen his idea. Newton unreservedly denied this claim, though the dispute rumbled on for the rest of Hooke’s life.
Throughout this time Hooke had been an active member of the Royal Society, serving as its “Curator” in which role he undertook to prepare and perform weekly experiments for the Society’s membership, from which many of the members’ paper were developed. However, following the Great Fire of London in 1666 he was also appointed as Surveyor of the City of London, supervising the rebuilding of those churches and other public building that had been destroyed. In this role he worked as Wren’s right-hand man, and contributed to the design of many of the buildings more commonly attributed to Wren. He became particularly renowned for his project management skills and his ability to complete construction schemes within budget.
Professor Jardine’s book paints an enticing portrait of a gifted man who was incapable of turning down new work. As a consequence, his own reputation has suffered because he left so much work incomplete. He was also unwise in his choice of combatants – both Huygens and Newton secured high profile appointments in the new regime under William of Orange following the Glorious Revolution, and history has a way of favouring those on the inside rather than the maverick loners. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | Aug 21, 2011 |
a fascinating if somewhat dry biography of a man who should have been honoured more when he was alive. ( )
  jusi | Jul 10, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 006053897X, Hardcover)

History hasn't been particularly kind to Robert Hooke. Inescapably linked to Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he famously feuded, Hooke was also a notable associate of surveyor Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry. Gifted in everything from architecture to anatomical dissection, he perhaps spread his knowledge too thin to have had a towering impact on any one field. His versatility combined with an impolitic personality damaged Hooke's standing in his lifetime and, author Lisa Jardine convincingly contends, in the centuries since his death. Jardine, the author of On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Christopher Wren , once again delves deep into the 17th century to resurrect the reputation of "a founding figure in the European scientific revolution." A London-based professor of renaissance studies, Jardine brings great enthusiasm to her task, even embarking on some detective work to discover what she convincingly contends is a long-lost painting of Hooke, whose appearance had heretofore been limited to unflattering descriptions by his contemporaries. As readable as it is thoroughly researched, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke will stand for some time as the definitive account of one of history's great dabblers. --Steven Stolder

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:53 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"The brilliant, largely forgotten maverick Robert Hooke was an engineer, surveyor, architect and inventor who was appointed London's Chief Surveyor after the Great Fire of 1666. Throughout the 1670s he worked tirelessly with his intimate friend Christopher Wren to rebuild London, personally designing many notable public and private buildings, including the Monument to the Fire. He was the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, and the author and illustrator of Micrographia, a lavishly illustrated volume of fascinating engravings of natural phenomena as seen under the new microscope. He designed an early balance spring watch, was a virtuoso performer of public anatomical dissections of animals, and kept himself going with liberal doses of cannabis and "poppy water" (laudanum)." "Hooke's personal diaries - cryptically confessional as anything Pepys wrote - record a life rich with melodrama. He came to London as a fatherless boy of thirteen to seek his fortune as a painter, rising by his wits to become an intellectual celebrity. He never married but formed a long-running illicit liaison with his niece. A dandy, boaster, workaholic, insomniac and inveterate socializer in London's most fashionable circles, Hooke had an irascible temper, and his passionate idealism proved fatal for his relationships with men of influence - most notably Sir Isaac Newton, who, after one violent argument, wiped Hooke's name from the Royal Society records and destroyed his portrait."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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