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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London [Hardcover]

Lisa Jardine
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Jan. 22 2004

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.

In this lively and absorbing biography, Lisa Jardine at last does Hooke and his achievements justice. Illuminating London's critical role in the emergence of modern science, she rediscovers and decodes a great original thinker of indefatigable curiosity and imagination, a major figure in the seventeenth-century intellectual and scientific revolution.


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From Publishers Weekly

English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is known to history more for losing quarrels with better-known scientists than for his achievements. He dared challenge Newton for credit as discoverer of the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction and lost. In his dispute with Dutch scientist Christaan Huygens over who invented the isochronous pendulum clock, Hooke fared slightly better, since it was discovered that unfriendly members of the fledging Royal Society were slipping word of his discoveries to Huygens. Cambridge Renaissance scholar Jardine follows up her 2002 biography of Christopher Wren with this satisfying rehabilitation of Hooke, Wren's colleague in rebuilding London after the devastating fire of 1666. Jardine argues that Hooke played an equal role in many of the projects attributed to Wren, most notably the dome of Saint Paul's and the Monument to the Fire of London. Hooke never made the leap into greatness by adequately working out and proving his "hunches," in large part because of other scientists' demands on his time. As a young man, he was Robert Boyle's trusted assistant. At the Royal Society, which he helped found, he served as curator of experiments and secretary. After the fire he was forced to juggle society members' increasingly unreasonable demands with his work as surveyor and associate to Wren. Hooke grew ill-tempered in his later years and was finally removed from his Royal Society posts. Jardine convincingly attributes his physical deterioration to decades of self-medicating and overwork. Sure to become the standard life of Hooke, Jardine's sympathetic study will please readers interested in the early years of modern science and scientific biographies. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Because victors write history, Newton looms large in the chronicles of Western science while the contentious hunchback who once challenged him for primacy survives as a mere footnote. In this lucid biography, Jardine acknowledges that Hooke erred in attacking Newton, but she refuses to let Hooke's contentiousness eclipse his considerable contributions to British culture. Highlighting the obstacles facing a fatherless boy from a family of ruined fortunes, Jardine chronicles Hooke's plucky rise as a maker of precision scientific instruments, a keen-eyed illustrator, and a geometrically acute architect and surveyor. Readers see a remarkable man parlay diverse gifts into a career that included serving as lead surveyor of London after the Great Fire of 1666, collaborating with Wren on landmark architectural projects, and creating Micrographia, a sensationally illustrated work of microscopic research. But Jardine also discerns pathos in the career of a man who pursued so many disciplines that he finally frustrated his own ambition to join Copernicus, Kepler, and, yes, Newton in the pantheon of theoretical scientists. A remarkably coherent portrait of a kaleidoscopic figure. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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"On Saturday, 10 April 1697, a little less than five years before his death, Robert Hooke sat down with 'a small Pocket-Diary', specially purchased for the purpose, to write his autobiography: I began this Day to write the History of my own Life, wherein I " Read the first page
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Multi-tasking Character Feb. 26 2004
Format:Hardcover
Hooke was indeed a curious character. Newton's phrase was that he was a "man of strange, unsociable temper." Hooke was, like many other early workers in the nascent sciences, jealous of others and argumentative about his contributions--modesty was not one of the virtues of such men in those days.
Hooke was the sort of man who over-reached and had too many balls in the air at once. While he was a talented mechanic and experimenter, he took on such unrelated jobs as rebuilding London after the great fire. He did enough for half a dozen great men, but never achieved the first rank of a Newton or a Watt, with one or two great discoveries to his credit.
Jardine's book is extremely thoroughly researched, detailed, with plenty of references and source notes. There are lots of illustrations and portraits, and the book has a good index, and it is well organized. I enjoyed the detective story that Jardine tells in which she appears to have identified the only extant portrait of Hooke. Pretty convincing to me, and a real feather in her cap.
Sadly, however, she does not describe his scientific contributions very well or in as much detail as I would have liked. Descriptions of his astronomical instruments and innovations are quite glossed over, impossible to understand. In particular, for example, Hooke's attempt at the measurement of stellar parallax with a new zenith-pointing telescope, are entirely omitted from this work. This story is entertainingly told in Hirshfeld's recent book "Parallax" and belongs here too as it reveals so much of his method of working and his weakness in the follow-through.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars �a man of strange unsociable temper� Feb. 16 2004
Format:Hardcover
Robert Hooke, when he is thought of at all, is generally remembered as the "vain, bad-tempered, quarrelsome adversary of Sir Isaac Newton", forever seeking acknowledgment that it was he, not Newton, who first published the inverse square law of gravitational attraction.
History has, of course, sided with Newton, leaving Hooke the reputation as "a man who lacked the mathematical genius to turn a good idea into a great reality." He has since all but disappeared beneath the shadows of his scientific peers, Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and others.
After three centuries, however, Hooke may finally be receiving his due. He first reappeared to the public as a major secondary character in author Neal Stephenson's recent mammoth and ongoing series of historical novels, The Baroque Cycle.
Now, on the heels of James Gleick's well-received biography of Newton, comes The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine's attempt to reveal the truth behind the legend.
Subtitled The Man who Measured London, Jardine successfully rescues Hooke from the scrap-heap of obscurity, unveiling a restless maverick passionate for his experiments, a foremost member in the influential Royal Society, and "a founding figure in the European scientific revolution."
Jardine wisely glosses over the perils of mathematical and scientific jargon, instead focusing her biography on reviving the career of a man so largely forgotten, no recognized portraits of him can be found.
Despite the reputation foisted upon him, Hooke was a well-respected inventor and engineer in seventeenth century London. His enthusiasm for experimentation made him a staple of Royal Society meetings, as fellow scientists would meet and debate the merits of what he and others had displayed that day.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Multi-tasking Character Feb. 26 2004
By Donald B. Siano - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Hooke was indeed a curious character. Newton's phrase was that he was a "man of strange, unsociable temper." Hooke was, like many other early workers in the nascent sciences, jealous of others and argumentative about his contributions--modesty was not one of the virtues of such men in those days.
Hooke was the sort of man who over-reached and had too many balls in the air at once. While he was a talented mechanic and experimenter, he took on such unrelated jobs as rebuilding London after the great fire. He did enough for half a dozen great men, but never achieved the first rank of a Newton or a Watt, with one or two great discoveries to his credit.
Jardine's book is extremely thoroughly researched, detailed, with plenty of references and source notes. There are lots of illustrations and portraits, and the book has a good index, and it is well organized. I enjoyed the detective story that Jardine tells in which she appears to have identified the only extant portrait of Hooke. Pretty convincing to me, and a real feather in her cap.
Sadly, however, she does not describe his scientific contributions very well or in as much detail as I would have liked. Descriptions of his astronomical instruments and innovations are quite glossed over, impossible to understand. In particular, for example, Hooke's attempt at the measurement of stellar parallax with a new zenith-pointing telescope, are entirely omitted from this work. This story is entertainingly told in Hirshfeld's recent book "Parallax" and belongs here too as it reveals so much of his method of working and his weakness in the follow-through.
One astounding revelation Jardine makes is that Hooke arrived at the inverse square law of gravitation "on the basis of experiments carried out with Henry Hunt..." but does not describe the experiments at all. How in the world could she omit any elaboration of this claim? If the experiments were done, and did support an inverse square law, then Hooke would be rightfully granted credit for the discovery of the universal law of gravitation, which almost everyone grants to Newton because he later worked out the mathematics of elliptical orbits!
The book rather concentrates on his social affairs, and is filled with minutiae that while sometimes interesting, is a bit exhausting. Just how much of the diary of the self-treatments of a hypochondriac can one stand to read?
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Introduction Nov. 25 2004
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I think I would have liked this book much better if I had read it before Stephen Inwood's The Forgotten Genius which, like this book, deals with the life of Robert Hooke. The differences between the two books, however, are striking. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other but, rather, that each has its strengths and weaknesses.

The first thing of note in Ms. Jardine's book is that she has a case to make--that a portrait previously identified as botanist John Ray is, in fact, a portrait of Hooke. This may not seem important to the casual reader but it has been one of the commonalities of Hooke research that no image of him remains. (Whether through accident or the machinations of bitter scientists like Newton, no one knows.) In fact, it is her argument over the authenticity of this portrait (which has some merit) that seems her real incentive for writing this book. In some sense, the rest of the book is an afterthought.

This is not to say that the rest of the book is not worthwhile. It most certainly is. Ms. Jardine tells her story well. Ms. Jardine's book has one major advantage over Mr. Inwood's: it is much more readable. Her style is much lighter and engaging. She is telling the story for a general audience whereas Mr. Inwood's main audience seems to be scientists and historians. She vividly recreates his youth on the Isle of Wight and his flight to London. She is excellent with outlining Hooke's tendencies towards hypochondria and the many tonics he took to keep himself going at a hectic pace. I am also very impressed with her telling of Hooke's conflict with the Huygens family which often gets short shrift in Hooke's story due to the much better known conflict with Newton.

Still, overall, Inwood's book gives a much better sense of the man. There is a real depth missing in this book. Ms. Jardine talks of Hooke's conflict with Newton near the very start of the book and then hardly mentions it again, though this is probably the defining time of Hooke's life. Her ability to discuss Hooke's scientific discoveries seems rather limited and even her discussion of his architectural work seems rather superficial. She is also rather gentle with Hooke, the man, glossing over evidence of his many affairs with housekeepers and what almost certainly became an incestuous relationship with his niece as well as taking it easy on his notoriously bad temper, though she does acknowledge it.

At least Ms. Jardine recognizes Hooke's weaknesses as a scientist and doesn't try to convince us he is a disrespected genius. She sees that he often overcommitted himself--though often with good reason--and that he didn't have the innate abilities of Newton, Huygens and Wren. He was a workman--the best of workmen and he deserved respect for that--but no genius.

A five-star book would be a collaboration between Ms. Jardine and Mr. Inwood. Combining her writing skills with his research and scientific knowledge would do Hooke the best justice. As it is, I would suggest reading this book first for a good introduction and then Mr. Inwood's book for a deeper look at this great experimentalist, Robert Hooke.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars REVIEW OF LISA JARDINE'S ROBERT HOOKE BY JOHN CHUCKMAN May 4 2005
By John W. Chuckman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Curious Life of Robert Hooke Feb. 24 2007
By David Marsland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Definitely not for the casual reader or the faint-hearted but an excellent read all the same. You will need to be pretty curious about Mr. Hooke and his cantankerous personality to navigate this book. The extensive use of quotes from original texts and letters provides the story with authenticity that is admirable but sometimes, makes it a little laborious read. I suspect it is important to understand how Hooke was hooked on patent medicines and opiates, not to say the odd heavy metal, but constantly reading about his vomiting habits is not for the squeamish, particularly at the breakfast table. However this is a great read and I came out of it feeling more sympathetic about Hooke who accomplished more in each month of his life than most of us do in a lifetime. Certainly Lisa Jardine made a comprehensive effort to capture the whole man and succeeded perhaps a little too much.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Curious Life of Robert Hook Nov. 2 2006
By Robert B. Richey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is an interesting read, though it is sort of dry. My interest did not really get aroused by the book until the Great Fire and the rebuilding. Maybe I know too much about Robert Hook and the first part of the book was only a rehash of what I was already familiar with. I have always known about the Great Fire and the damage to the city, but had no idea of what went on in the effort to rebuild. Of course Sir Christopher Wren has always been "the man who built London after the fire" and this book does give a little more realistic description of how the interests of the various groups (the Royals, the Corporation of London, the Royal Society and the average citizen) were accomodated in the rebuilding.
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