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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London Hardcover – February 3, 2004

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First American Edition Stated edition (February 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006053897X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060538972
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #992,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

History hasn't been particularly kind to Robert Hooke. Inescapably linked to Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he famously feuded, Hooke was also a notable associate of surveyor Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry. Gifted in everything from architecture to anatomical dissection, he perhaps spread his knowledge too thin to have had a towering impact on any one field. His versatility combined with an impolitic personality damaged Hooke's standing in his lifetime and, author Lisa Jardine convincingly contends, in the centuries since his death. Jardine, the author of On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Christopher Wren , once again delves deep into the 17th century to resurrect the reputation of "a founding figure in the European scientific revolution." A London-based professor of renaissance studies, Jardine brings great enthusiasm to her task, even embarking on some detective work to discover what she convincingly contends is a long-lost painting of Hooke, whose appearance had heretofore been limited to unflattering descriptions by his contemporaries. As readable as it is thoroughly researched, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke will stand for some time as the definitive account of one of history's great dabblers. --Steven Stolder --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) is known to history more for losing quarrels with better-known scientists than for his achievements. He dared challenge Newton for credit as discoverer of the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction and lost. In his dispute with Dutch scientist Christaan Huygens over who invented the isochronous pendulum clock, Hooke fared slightly better, since it was discovered that unfriendly members of the fledging Royal Society were slipping word of his discoveries to Huygens. Cambridge Renaissance scholar Jardine follows up her 2002 biography of Christopher Wren with this satisfying rehabilitation of Hooke, Wren's colleague in rebuilding London after the devastating fire of 1666. Jardine argues that Hooke played an equal role in many of the projects attributed to Wren, most notably the dome of Saint Paul's and the Monument to the Fire of London. Hooke never made the leap into greatness by adequately working out and proving his "hunches," in large part because of other scientists' demands on his time. As a young man, he was Robert Boyle's trusted assistant. At the Royal Society, which he helped found, he served as curator of experiments and secretary. After the fire he was forced to juggle society members' increasingly unreasonable demands with his work as surveyor and associate to Wren. Hooke grew ill-tempered in his later years and was finally removed from his Royal Society posts. Jardine convincingly attributes his physical deterioration to decades of self-medicating and overwork. Sure to become the standard life of Hooke, Jardine's sympathetic study will please readers interested in the early years of modern science and scientific biographies. Illus.
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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars
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See all 9 customer reviews
Certainly Lisa Jardine made a comprehensive effort to capture the whole man and succeeded perhaps a little too much.
David Marsland
As it is, I would suggest reading this book first for a good introduction and then Mr. Inwood's book for a deeper look at this great experimentalist, Robert Hooke.
Timothy Haugh
Ms. Jardine is at times a slightly awkward writer, but she has an interesting story to tell and, on the whole, she tells it well.
John W. Chuckman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Donald B. Siano on February 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Hooke was indeed a curious character. Newton's phrase was that he was a "man of strange, unsociable temper." Hooke was, like many other early workers in the nascent sciences, jealous of others and argumentative about his contributions--modesty was not one of the virtues of such men in those days.
Hooke was the sort of man who over-reached and had too many balls in the air at once. While he was a talented mechanic and experimenter, he took on such unrelated jobs as rebuilding London after the great fire. He did enough for half a dozen great men, but never achieved the first rank of a Newton or a Watt, with one or two great discoveries to his credit.
Jardine's book is extremely thoroughly researched, detailed, with plenty of references and source notes. There are lots of illustrations and portraits, and the book has a good index, and it is well organized. I enjoyed the detective story that Jardine tells in which she appears to have identified the only extant portrait of Hooke. Pretty convincing to me, and a real feather in her cap.
Sadly, however, she does not describe his scientific contributions very well or in as much detail as I would have liked. Descriptions of his astronomical instruments and innovations are quite glossed over, impossible to understand. In particular, for example, Hooke's attempt at the measurement of stellar parallax with a new zenith-pointing telescope, are entirely omitted from this work. This story is entertainingly told in Hirshfeld's recent book "Parallax" and belongs here too as it reveals so much of his method of working and his weakness in the follow-through.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on November 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I think I would have liked this book much better if I had read it before Stephen Inwood's The Forgotten Genius which, like this book, deals with the life of Robert Hooke. The differences between the two books, however, are striking. This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other but, rather, that each has its strengths and weaknesses.

The first thing of note in Ms. Jardine's book is that she has a case to make--that a portrait previously identified as botanist John Ray is, in fact, a portrait of Hooke. This may not seem important to the casual reader but it has been one of the commonalities of Hooke research that no image of him remains. (Whether through accident or the machinations of bitter scientists like Newton, no one knows.) In fact, it is her argument over the authenticity of this portrait (which has some merit) that seems her real incentive for writing this book. In some sense, the rest of the book is an afterthought.

This is not to say that the rest of the book is not worthwhile. It most certainly is. Ms. Jardine tells her story well. Ms. Jardine's book has one major advantage over Mr. Inwood's: it is much more readable. Her style is much lighter and engaging. She is telling the story for a general audience whereas Mr. Inwood's main audience seems to be scientists and historians. She vividly recreates his youth on the Isle of Wight and his flight to London. She is excellent with outlining Hooke's tendencies towards hypochondria and the many tonics he took to keep himself going at a hectic pace. I am also very impressed with her telling of Hooke's conflict with the Huygens family which often gets short shrift in Hooke's story due to the much better known conflict with Newton.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John W. Chuckman on May 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Robert Hooke's life was curious, a neglected topic that makes good reading, although a full, living sense of this man is missing from the book.

He was an ingenious, creative man, abounding with energy and interests in his younger years, whose acquaintances and friends included Boyle, Pepys, and Wren. He was widely recognized as a physics and general science experimenter of exceptional ability - a designer of both accurate instruments and experiments in which to employ them - almost certainly the greatest of his day. He might be viewed from today's perspective as something of the Ernest Lawrence of his day versus the great theorists.

Hooke's interests included astronomical measurements, microscopy, fossils, watches, the behavior of gases, and more. He was also interested in theoretical concepts although his mathematical abilities fell far short of people like Newton or Leibniz. Still, he came up with the hypothesis of the inverse-square law for gravity which he sent to Newton, asking him to prove mathematically whether it was valid. Newton never gave Hooke appropriate credit for Hooke's early insight, and it is not clear whether this was owing to Hooke's annoying carping or Newton's own very unpleasant temperament.

Hooke's early musings on the layers of fossils found on his native Isle of Wight demonstrate a remarkable analytical and creative mind at work. He got the process of their formation pretty close to right lifetimes before the meaning of fossils was widely recognized in science.

Ms. Jardine made the happy discovery of what is likely Hooke's portrait (no known one survives), a picture that had long been identified as being of John Ray. The circumstances of her discovery make a wonderful little tale early in the book.
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