Forgotten Genius: The Biography of Robert Hooke 1635-1703
By Stephen Inwood; MacAdam/Cage, $28.50
Seventeenth-century London—a crowded warren of winding alleyways, wooden houses, pudding shops, and festering ditches—was also a city in scientific ferment. Harebrained schemes for flying machines and sheep-to-human blood transfusions shared equal footing with serious studies in optics, astronomy, and anatomy; scientific method was almost nonexistent. Into this muddled carnival of knowledge and hokum stepped a scientist named Robert Hooke. Few people remember him today, but Hooke was largely responsible for injecting experimental rigor into a pursuit then dominated by dilettantes.
The breadth of Hooke’s achievements is astonishing. He was a skilled architect who helped rebuild London after a great fire razed nearly the entire city in 1666; he invented the first practical spring-driven watch; he was the first to use a microscope for systematic research; and he was the first to understand that the lungs supply some vital essence to the bloodstream. But above all, he tirelessly advocated science—or natural philosophy, as it was then called—as the only reliable way to understand the world.
Given Hooke’s humble background, such an explosion of intellect is all the more amazing. In 1648, at the age of 13, he left his home on the Isle of Wight and headed for London after his father, a church curate, died. He soon earned an apprenticeship with Robert Boyle, the scientist whose famous law—deduced with the aid of an air pump that Hooke designed—describes the relationship between pressure and volume in an ideal gas. By 1665 the newly founded Royal Society had appointed Hooke curator of experiments, a position he held for most of his life. Inwood re-creates that life almost month by month, frequently miring the narrative in numbing minutiae. But an intriguing story unfolds nevertheless. Shortly after his appointment to the Royal Society, Hooke published his masterpiece, Micrographia, a 246-page treatise illustrated with his own beautiful and accurate drawings of fleas, fly wings, compound eyes, molds, and other wonders invisible to the naked eye. In the decades that followed, he speculated about continental drift, the shifting of Earth’s axis, and the extinction of species—all accepted facts today but fodder for mockery three centuries ago.
Hooke’s lifelong ambition was to be remembered as the foremost scientist of his time, but in this he was thwarted by a formidable contemporary: Isaac Newton. Hooke accused Newton of stealing his ideas about planetary motion and gravity, while Newton was convinced that Hooke was a braggart who made false claims to precedence. Inwood makes a plausible case that there was truth to both claims. Hooke’s ideas may indeed have inspired Newton, but Newton’s brilliant mathematical skills far exceeded Hooke’s, enabling him to move beyond intuition to revolutionary new theories. Yet even this decades-long dispute was punctuated by periods of calm. During one such lull in 1676, Newton acknowledged his debt to Hooke in a letter with words that have been quoted countless times: “If I have seen further,” he wrote, “it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.”
Dragon Skies: Astronomy of Imperial China
Courtesy of Sam Willard/Chabot
Chabot Space and Science Center
10000 Skyline Boulevard, Oakland, California
Through January 2, 2005
In A.D.1054 a dazzling light, visible even by day, appeared in the constellation Taurus. No one in Europe recorded it. Meanwhile, the technologically superior Chinese not only heralded the emergence of the “guest star”—a supernova whose cloud of gas debris remains as the Crab nebula—but also created various sophisticated astronomical gizmos that were marvels in their own right. A working model of one of these devices—a mechanical water clock and celestial observatory built by Su Song, a courtier of the 11th-century Emperor Zhezong—is on show in Dragon Skies, a touring exhibition now in Oakland, California, that documents 4,500 years of Chinese astronomy.
The original 35-foot-tall water clock housed three separate instruments: an armillary sphere, a system of nesting rings equipped with sights that, when aligned with reference points like Polaris, could pinpoint a star’s east-west and north-south position in the sky; a celestial globe, a spherical star chart with Earth at its center and stars marked on the surface; and a cuckoo clock, which announced the time with animated puppet figures. Water-driven motors turned the armillary sphere and the celestial globe so that their movements co- incided with the daily motions of objects in the night sky.
Sadly, the clock graced the imperial court for just 39 years before vanishing in the wake of an invading Jin army. Shrewd modern scientists used Su Song’s own detailed descriptions and drawings to create the one-quarter scale replica as well as an armillary sphere with which museum visitors can experiment. As they pivot the sighting tube on the rotating rings to spot the locations of constellations printed on a wall poster, they may feel the same thrill of discovery Su Song did nearly a millennium ago.
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