In resurrecting Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine has created her own optical illusionby Patricia Fara / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: The Curious Life Of Robert Hooke Author: Lisa Jardine Price: HarperCollins, ?25
Even Cambridge academics now appreciate the publicity value of scientific anniversaries. In 1953 the discovery of DNA scarcely reached the national press, yet this year’s celebrations overshadowed those for Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest. It was only during the second half of the 19th century that publicists started to organise festivities for national figures such as Robert Burns. Scientific birthday parties arrived still later, and one of the largest was orchestrated by the nascent electrical industry’s public relations men, who in 1931, for the 100th anniversary of the discovery of electromagnetic induction, converted Michael Faraday into a working-class hero and sold over 100,000 copies of The Errand Boy Who Changed the World.
The first major scientific anniversary was the 1909 centenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Isaac Newton, Britain’s highest scientific priest, had to wait until 1927, the 200th anniversary of his death, when journalists moaned that “celebrations are now of almost monthly occurrence, and some people may think there are too many of them.” Some people undoubtedly still think there are too many of them, but today science and the media are symbiotically linked. This year’s scientific giant is Robert Hooke, the experimenter and inventor who died in 1703 and whose reputation, his devoted followers claim, has been unfairly eclipsed by his contemporaries. Revisionist accounts often cast his arch-enemy Newton as the villain of the piece, but Hooke’s own behaviour also contributed to his marginalisation. He was an inveterate self-medicator, and the purges, emetics and other remedies he consumed exacerbated or even caused his debilitating symptoms and hastened his transformation into the eccentric, paranoid miser that his survivors connived to forget.
Tercentenary planning started several years ago, and the tributes that have appeared so far include four books, a television documentary and a large conference at the Royal Society. One of Hooke’s leading champions is Jim Bennett, dynamic director of the newly revitalised Oxford Museum for the History of Science. Bennett has spearheaded broader moves to shift the attention of science’s historians away from theory and abstraction towards experiments, instruments and practical applications. In modern accounts of the so-called scientific revolution (itself a French invention of the 1930s), Hooke emerges as the crucial experimenter who transformed ideas-based natural philosophy into something more like modern science by adapting traditional measuring instruments. More recently, another major Hooke protagonist…