Sunday, September 23, 2007



Robert Hooke's life was curious, a neglected topic that makes good reading, although a full, living sense of this man is missing from the book.

He was an ingenious, creative man, abounding with energy and interests in his younger years, whose acquaintances and friends included Boyle, Pepys, and Wren. He was widely recognized as a physics and general science experimenter of exceptional ability - a designer of both accurate instruments and experiments in which to employ them - almost certainly the greatest of his day. He might be viewed from today's perspective as something of the Ernest Lawrence of his day versus the great theorists.

Hooke's interests included astronomical measurements, microscopy, fossils, watches, the behavior of gases, and more. He was also interested in theoretical concepts although his mathematical abilities fell far short of people like Newton or Leibniz. Still, he came up with the hypothesis of the inverse-square law for gravity which he sent to Newton, asking him to prove mathematically whether it was valid. Newton never gave Hooke appropriate credit for Hooke's early insight, and it is not clear whether this was owing to Hooke's annoying carping or Newton's own very unpleasant temperament.

Hooke's early musings on the layers of fossils found on his native Isle of Wight demonstrate a remarkable analytical and creative mind at work. He got the process of their formation pretty close to right lifetimes before the meaning of fossils was widely recognized in science.

Ms. Jardine made the happy discovery of what is likely Hooke's portrait (no known one survives), a picture that had long been identified as being of John Ray. The circumstances of her discovery make a wonderful little tale early in the book.

What comes through so strongly from some of Jardine's anecdotes is how the basic philosophy of science had advanced by the second half of the 17th century, Hooke's time. This was, after all, only a few decades after Francis Bacon, yet the main points of modern science seem to be assumed by Europe's leading tinkerers and scientists.

Hooke's story is not a happy one, but I will leave that for readers to discover. Ms. Jardine is at times a slightly awkward writer, but she has an interesting story to tell and, on the whole, she tells it well. Ms. Jardine also wrote On a Grander Scale, a biography of the wonderful Christopher Wren. The book on Hooke she regards as a companion volume to the one on Wren. Do read both.