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The Man Who Knew Too Much: The strange and inventive life of Robert Hooke 1635-1703,
By Stephen Inwood, Macmillan, 2002, 514 ff.

This is a comprehensive biography of one of the most versatile of the early scientists. Although few of his discoveries and inventions are known to us today in the form in which Hooke discovered or devised them, since other scientists completed, refined or expanded on his early work, his work formed the foundation of scientific developments in many different fields. Stephen Inwood is a former lecturer in history and now a full-time writer.

Inwood takes us in painstaking detail through all aspects of Hooke's life and the very many projects in which he was involved: sometimes I felt that this degree of detail obscured the significance of some of Hooke's achievements. His principal employer throughout his life was the then newly founded Royal Society; but he worked also at Gresham College and was personal assistant to another famous scientist, Robert Boyle. Hooke was a contemporary of Isaac Newton, but Hooke was not strong in mathematics, so this is where Newton triumphed. Hooke was involved in so very many projects that he usually did not have the time to complete many of them.

Hooke favoured the wave theory of light while Newton thought of light as particles, and the wave theory was subsequently (until Einstein's work) to dominate. Hooke devised an early thermometer, barometer, hygrometer and pocket watch. It was he who designed and built the equipment that Boyle used to establish the gas law named after him; and Hooke established his own law of elasticity in strings and springs. His treatise "Micrographia" is a seminal work, not only on microscopy but dealing with geology and astronomy as well. He realised that fossils were the remains of previously living creatures and that geological formations had not been static since Creation (Hooke was nominally a Christian); only a century or so after Copernicus, Hooke was one of the first to attribute the orbits of the planets around the sun to gravity. In addition to the massive amount of scientific work he achieved, Hooke was also a competent architect and assistant to Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. It was Hooke who designed and oversaw the building of the Monument to the Great Fire in London.

This book gives scientific detail only in the broadest terms, so it is quite accessible to non-scientists. It also gives a fascinating picture of London life at the time of the Great Plague and Great Fire, and many of Hooke's contemporaries, like Newton, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Samuel Pepys are met in context. For those interested in the history of science or the social history of the time, this is an invaluable book. There is a substantial list of Notes and References and an Index.

Isaac Newton by James Gleick
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