A decidedly frosty meeting of minds

The Curious Life of Robert Hooke

January 16, 2004

Robert Hooke was a man of fundamentally original ideas and brilliant technical skills who was totally overshadowed by Newton as a scientist and by Wren as an architect. But he made outstanding advances in both fields, and his energy and dedication ensured that the Royal Society survived its formative years.

Now, for the tercentenary of Hooke's death, Lisa Jardine contributes a biography that makes a trilogy with her Ingenious Pursuits (1999) and On a Grander Scale (2002). The first of these centres on the early years of the Royal Society, and Hooke is prominent; greater light is shed on him in the second book, which is an analytical biography of Wren.

Wren and Hooke between them established the first modern architectural practice, and the present book deals less fully with Hooke's building and surveying activities, and devotes more space to Hooke as a scientist and person.

In her introduction, Jardine recounts Hooke's long, public and bitter quarrel with Newton over the authorship of gravitational theory. It was a quarrelsome age, with, for example, the English fellows of the Royal Society more than willing to assert the claims of Newton over the foreign Leibniz on the question of the invention of the calculus. Even so, Hooke's rages seemed to verge on paranoia, and he pursued other quarrels with the same intensity (for example, with Huygens over the invention of balance-spring watches). Hooke's disputes were all of the same kind, and were perhaps justified.

Newton's first law of motion states that all bodies put in motion will continue to move uniformly in a straight line unless acted on by some force. Hooke published this statement, together with the following idea, in 1674, 13 years before the Principia - as the planets do not move in straight lines, some force must therefore be present. Hooke made the imaginative leap of supposing some central attractive force between bodies in space that leads to elliptical motion. Hooke did not know what the magnitude of the force might be.

This idea of a mysterious central force was almost certainly new to Newton, but it proved the key to the formulation of gravitational theory. The assumption of an inverse square relationship for the magnitude of the force allowed Newton to make his dazzling analysis of planetary motion, and this embraced the development of calculus to formulate the equations (although the Principia uses the language of classical geometry). The work was acclaimed as an outstanding advance, and Hooke agreed - but he thought he deserved at least a footnote. His point was that Newton's analysis was the technical working-out of an idea, but that he, Hooke, had had that idea.

Newton's view was simple: the mathematics was beyond Hooke; only about a dozen scholars in Europe could understand fully what he had done.

Jardine reveals very well the insular views of the gentlemen of the Royal Society, and their basic distrust of foreigners, even though they were well served by Bremen-born Oldenburg, who was their secretary. Oldenburg carried on an extensive correspondence with foreign scientists, and promoted the interests of the society, making their observations and discoveries widely known. He was imprisoned for a short while in the Tower of London on charges of spying during the Dutch wars; Hooke believed, with justification, that Oldenburg had told the Dutchman Huygens of his, Hooke's, invention of the balance spring. Hooke's paranoia was not fanciful, and he became increasingly reticent. As early as 1675 he had started publishing some of his ideas as anagrams; on a vacant page of his book on helioscopes may be found a summary list of some of his "inventions". Number three reads ceiiinosssttuu , which is ut tensio sic vis , that is, Hooke's law of elasticity, while number two is a master statement to rank intellectually with his idea of central attraction, namely that the shape of the perfect arch is the same as that of an equivalent hanging chain. Wren used this insight to design the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

The first account of Hooke's life and work was written by Richard Waller, and published in 1705, two years after Hooke's death. Waller knew Hooke for only a few years and his description is of a bitter man, aged and ill.

Hooke was said to have been good-looking when younger, but no portraits survive. The story persists that Newton pursued Hooke beyond the grave and, as president of the Royal Society, ordered all likenesses to be destroyed.

Jardine does not necessarily believe this, and she has found an attractive portrait labelled "John Ray" that hangs in the Natural History Museum, London. She gives convincing evidence that the picture is not of Ray, but may be of Hooke. In any case, it makes an attractive dust-jacket for her book.

The book is scholarly, with ample notes and references, and is beautifully illustrated. Pedants may object to Jardine's occasional speculations ("we can be pretty sure") and they may be irritated by some slips (Grace's new dress cost the large sum of 40 shillings, not an unbelievable £40).

But this is history as it should be written: informative, compellingly true and immensely readable.

Jacques Heyman is emeritus professor of engineering, University of Cambridge.

The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man who Measured London

Author - Lisa Jardine
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 422
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 00 714944 1

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