Top critical review
In the Shadow of Giants
on 21 February 2015
Robert Hook is a fascinating subject to study, but unfortunately Lisa Jardine wrote his biography in a rather laborious style. Hooke's life is recollected here in excruciating details, often through original texts of various lengths written in Early Modern English. It certainly has its own charm, but after a while I found this more annoying than useful. I would have preferred to hear the author's own voice rather than someone else's. Instead Jardine elected to let contemporary texts speak for her. For me this is academic literature at its worst.
Hook is an important figure in the history of science, but he has always been neglected and is almost forgotten today. This has a lot to do with the fact that he lived all his life in the shadow of giants like Isaac Newton. But more than three hundred years later it has become increasingly obvious for historians that Hook has made a significant contribution to the early development of modern science. That being said, potential readers need to know that this book is not meant to be a scientific biography. Yet I believe more attention should at least have been given to the conflict between Hook and Newton. Anyhow, if you are more interested in Hook's scientific accomplishments you will be better rewarded if you read other efforts that are dedicated to this important aspect of his life; like for example "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Stephen Inwood, which appeared around the same time. In Jardine's narrative all areas of Hook's life are covered more or less equally, with no emphasis on any particular subject. This includes a long chapter on the role played by Hook in the large scale reconstruction of the city after the Great Fire of London. Overall it remains a reasonably well balanced book. And for sure one that the late Jacob Bronowski would have loved to preface. He would certainly be proud of his daughter's accomplishment.
Jardine reveals to us in the introduction that her book "aspires to tell a different story from the customary version of the life and brilliant career of Robert Hook which records him as the vain, bad-tempered, quarrelsome adversary of Sir Isaac Newton." The end result of this favourable prejudice is that we are presented here with a very obedient and devoted Hook. Therefore his legendary bad dispositions are not, in my opinion, given proper attention. It's like if Jardine had somehow overcompensated for the tendency of previous biographers to portray him as an inamicable fellow. Jardine may have wanted to express her own narrative voice, but in the end it is a voice that sounds a bit false. That is not because she lacks intellectual honesty, but rather is the consequence of her conscious decision to offer her own perception of what she thought was a more objective portraying of Hook.
There is another area where Jardine may again have lost her objectivity. This becomes evident in her obstinate quest to find a picture of Hook so that we could have a better idea of what he looked like. She writes "so deep was Newton's hatred of Hook, we are told, that he destroyed the portrait of him (possibly two portraits) known to have hung at the Royal Society." She had been on the lookout for a portrait that would have survived the purported desecration when she found one that appeared to her as an authentic painting representing Robert Hook. This is the portrait we find on the cover of her book in various editions. She adds defiantly "I propose to claim this portrait as Robert Hooke's, until it is proved to me that this is in fact recognizably a portrait of somebody else." Well, that is exactly what happened only a few years after she made this daring claim. According to Wikipedia the painting does not represent Robert Hook, nor John Ray (like it was originally believed), but is in reality a portrait of Jan Baptista van Helmont, as it has recently been demonstrated. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
"In 2003, the historian Lisa Jardine claimed a recently discovered portrait represented Robert Hooke. However, Jardine's hypothesis was disproved by William Jensen of the University of Cincinnati and by the German researcher Andreas Pechtl of Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The portrait in fact depicts Jan Baptista van Helmont."
Therefore it now appears that Jardine had not conducted sufficient research to properly substantiate such a bold assertion. And it could even be said that in the process she made a fool of herself. Nevertheless, that does not subtract anything from the book itself which remains a valuable contribution to the history of science. But also, I am afraid, an enduring testimony of her impudence.