The Man Who Knew Too Much by Stephen Inwood.
Pan 2003, 497 pages.
This is a fascinating book. Sheer detail brings Hooke’s remarkable career into sharp focus.
Inwood is not a prose stylist, I would venture to say. Perhaps it is due to the nature of Hooke’s career — he pursued many themes for a long time — but the text comes to be rather repetitive. List-like. But my interest never flagged because of the subject, because of the pains taken over the research, and because of the enormous significance of Hooke’s work.
Hooke was one of the key figures of the 17th century, at least in England. He left no field of natural philosophy untouched, yes — but was also second only to Wren in shaping the rebuilt London that rose after the great fire. His contributions were perhaps rarely fundamental. He was part of the debate that laid the groundwork for Newton’s Laws, and stated some of Newton’s results before Newton, but from intuition; and without Newton’s impeccable mathematical foundations, his comments were more in the form of opinions in a debate, rather than laws carved in stone.
Why is he so often merely a footnote to the Newton story?
There are several reasons.
One is that Hooke was a professional research scientist — possibly the first in the land. Newton inherited and was gifted enough money to allow him to develop his ideas in a lofty isolation, giving his perfunctory lectures at Cambridge but essentially able to think and dig deep. Hooke was employed by The Royal Society to provide them with demonstrations every week, some titbit to fascinate the dilettantes. One week he was inflating an animal’s lungs or evacuating vessels, the next demonstrating a new pendulum or sextant. He did not have the luxury of time and resources for deep, fundamental study. But I suspect Hooke would have thrived in today’s scientific environment, where entrepreneurship is all the fashion, though would have found many of us far too narrow for his liking.
Related to that was his need to maintain reputation. Hooke was not poor — but he relied on his own efforts for his money. Forty pounds a year for this, fifty for that, a fee for designing a mansion, and so on. This meant that again the need to live got in the way of really grappling with the essence of a field. Further, it explains his irritating and ultimately counter-productive mania about priory of various discoveries. Only by ensuring that everybody knew that he was the mind behind various ideas could he be sure that the employment would continue. This lead him to claim he had achieved things he had not — or to prematurely claim achievements that never came to fruition, or to play odd games like using a code to present results he wanted to claim as his own but was not yet ready to reveal. The end result was a great deal of scepticism toward his every word from certain figures, in particular partisans of other great figures of the time like Newton and Huygens.
But I suspect it was in his nature of flit from topic to topic. His was a restless energy. He did fundamental work in chemistry — where he was Boyle’s right hand man — and made some statements that presage the ideal gas law; and in physics, where he invented early vacuum pumps, made important strides in time-keeping (work which lead to his most persistent memorial — Hooke’s Law of the force due to the extension of a spring), in astronomy and in optics. In biology he did early work on the nature of respiration and published Micrographia, one of the most important texts of its time and a key work in the history of microscopy and biology. He coined the term ‘cell’ in biology, by analogy with a monk’s cell, when he was looking at the structures of cork under one of his own microscopes. In my own field of crystallography he proposed the idea that crystals were made of stacked identical building blocks, and that this explained the regular facets. Typically, this is rarely mentioned in crystallography texts.
Another reason for Hooke’s lower fame is, I suspect, that no portraits of him remain. No little marginal bio with a photo appears in a history or text book. It adds up.
Yet he was in some ways the most modern of all the figures of his time; he was a scientist by career rather than as a gentlemanly pursuit, and a firm believer in the primacy of reason and evidence. Newton explored alchemy and magic, and has aptly been described as an early scientist and a late sorcerer. Hooke saw petrified shells high up in the mountains and, rather than convince himself they were ‘figured stones’ (what? decoys buried by God?), insisted that they had once been in the sea and the sea bed must have risen, and if that meant that the world was older than the bible indicated then… so be it. He found the conclusions difficult to stomach, but he did not bury his head in the sand, unlike so many around him. And he came to these ideas a century before Hutton came on the scene and two before Lyell. But, typically, he did not bury himself in the work, but threw off ideas, argued in their favour, and moved on. Part of the greatness of Darwin is that he buttressed his theory and made it impossible to ignore. Similarly, Newton underpinned his ideas about gravitation — most of which had been quoted previously by someone else, Hooke included — by a unifying mathematical treatment that made them more than a matter for debate. It is remarkable how often figures we venerate for their originality in fact were not as original as we think, but more rigorous. We should not underestimate the importance of this! We all tend to cling onto old ideas as long as we can. They are comfortable, familiar, accepted. To displace them takes fortitude and thoroughness. Especially in earlier times, when religion retained its grip.
He also invented the universal joint.
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of science, or in Newton or the 17th century. It offers lessons on the parlousness of reputation and legacy, and is testament to Inwood’s inkling that there was a story here to be told. Even the workmanlike nature of the prose, which I began by criticising, seems like the only language suitable for the topic; forthright, truthful and putting content above form.