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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London Paperback – 6 Sep 2004
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‘Jardine…has made important archival discoveries…her prose sparkles.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Nobody can explain factual history more clearly than Jardine.’ The Times
‘Jardine sets out to penetrate the obscurity and show us the man…a fascinating, impeccably researched account.’ Jenny Uglow, Guardian
‘Lisa Jardine is a new star on England’s literary and historical scene. She has a gift, which so few historians possess, of making the past seem relevant to our own times.’ Paul Johnson
‘Not nearly as well known today as his close friend Wren of his bitter enemy Newton, Hooke did as much as either of them to define the intellectual character of his age.’ Sunday Times
About the Author
Lisa Jardine CBE is Director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, and Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and an Honorary Fellow of King's College, Cambridge and Jesus College, Cambridge. She writes and reviews for all the major UK national newspapers and magazines and for the 'Washington Post', and has presented and appears regularly on arts, history and current affairs programmes for TV and radio. She is a regular writer and presenter of 'A Point of View', on BBC Radio 4. She judged many important literary prizes including the 2000 Orwell Prize and the 2002 Man Booker Prize. She is the author of a number of best-selling general books, including 'Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance', 'Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution', and biographies of Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. Lisa Jardine is married to the architect John Hare and has three children.
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Hooke provides a cautionary tale for workaholics and multitaskers everywhere; his masters at the Royal Society were staggeringly intolerant of his work for the Corporation of London. Yet if one looks at what was going on in the 1660s and 70s - whether the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, or the unparalleled spirit of scientific enquiry within the Royal Society - and if one removes Hooke from the equation, it is difficult to see how any of it would have been achieved.
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. If you are 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 had 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.
This book vividly paints a picture of the life of this fascinating character. So lucidly is it written that one barely notices that it is brimming with fresh insights. An outstanding piece of scholarship and a brilliant piece of prose, this book is a must-have for anyone with an interest in the story of one of history's most colourful characters.
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