The Man Who Knew Too Much

In early 2005 (roughly March) I read:

Stephen Inwood, 2002
Pan Books (Pan Macmillan)
ISBN 0 330 48829 5

Aptly subtitled the strange and inventive life of Robert Hooke, 1635–1703 this biography repairs the damage done to Hooke's reputation by those who out-lived him. Hooke was a friend of the more famous architect Wren and worked alongside him in the re-building of London after the Great Fire of 1666; but Wren's son's account of Wren's work ignored Hooke's contribution. Though Hooke has often been described as strange and unsocial – a description which could fairly be applied to Newton – he had many friends, in all walks of life, and a lively social life.

Hooke may fairly be credited with Newton's first law – massive bodies move in straight lines except in so far as some force acting on them persuades them to do otherwise – and seems to have intuited (though he was by no means the first to do so) that gravity followed the inverse square law, but (unlike Newton) lacked the mathematical genius to (invent the infinitesimal calculus and use it to) prove that such laws yield elliptical orbits for the planets. Like Newton, Hooke was a bit crazy and had a huge ego; his attempts to claim priority over Newton on the laws of motion led to an ugly squabble; Hooke's reputation came out the worse for this (not least because he had a habit of exaggerating the promise of his clever ideas – of which he genuinely had many, including one used in all modern cars – and claiming credit for ideas others had taken much further than he'd published any account of). Since Newton ruled the world of science for many years after Hooke's death, his account of the matter is what we generally hear (and Newton did do the important and hard part of the job: it's one thing to publish some speculations, quite another to weave them into a working theory). It is worth noting that Newton's famous remark about standing on the shoulders of giants was made in a letter to Hooke, when the two were patching up an earlier quarrel, and that Hooke was one of the giants he was alluding to.

Hooke was a cripple with a brilliant mind – a hunch-back who may be thought of as the archetype of all Igors everywhere. He was an active participant in the world of Natural Philosophy (now known as science) and a resolute proponent of experimentation. He took an active part in the creation of various philosophical societies including the Royal Society, by which he was employed for most of his life to devise, and perform in meetings, experiments for the edification of its members. He described a great many inventions which were ignored at the time and later re-invented by others; the instances where this happened in his lifetime doubtless contributed to his sometimes over-zealous efforts to be given credit. He worked with Thomas Thompion to greatly improve the state of the art in watch-making; he devised new and better ways of making and using telescopes and microscopes; though distressed by vivisection, he demonstrated that the important thing about breathing is getting new air into the lungs, and likewise that breathing and flame consumed something in the air that both needed; he discovered the law concerning springs that bears his name, and was likely the actual discoverer of the law about gasses that is generally credited to his (patron at the time of the discovery and) life-long friend Boyle - pressure times volume is constant at constant temperature.

This book is fascinating and illuminating, as was the man it describes.

Reading it also prompted me to think about patents in light of Hooke and his inventions.

Written by Eddy.
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