Thursday, July 19, 2012

`One Goes Up, the Other Goes Down'

On Wednesday, the 377th birthday of the polymath Robert Hooke, author of Micrographia, I peered for the first time through an atomic force microscope and experienced none of Hooke’s enthusiastic pleasure. He saw and drew a flea and the head of a fly, among many other things. I saw a blurry, waffle-like pattern of yellow boxes. Hooke knew many things. Most of us know one thing imperfectly. In his Brief Lives, John Aubrey writes of Hooke: 

“As he is of prodigious inventive head, so is a person of great virtue and goodness. Now when I have said his inventive faculty is so great, you cannot imagine his memory to be excellent, for they are like two buckets, as one goes up, the other goes down. He is certainly the greatest expert on mechanics this day in the world.” 

Hooke is an inspiring reproach to an age of earnest specialization. He built an early pocket watch and vacuum pumps for Robert Boyle, described capillary action, formalized our understanding of gravity (and accused Newton of stealing his ideas), built early microscopes and telescopes, measured the distance to stars with parallax, served as the surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren, and was the first to use “cell” in the modern biological sense, among other accomplishments. Named after Hooke are an asteroid, craters on the moon and Mars, an atom and a law of elasticity in physics. I most admire him as a writer and artist with a free-ranging mind. Like his contemporary Sir Thomas Browne, Hooke inhabited an age when such gifts were perfectly compatible with the pursuit of science and engineering. In his preface to Micrographia, Hooke writes:

“If therefore the Reader expects from me any infallible Deductions, or certainty of Axioms, I am to say for my self, that those stronger Works of Wit and Imagination are above my weak Abilities; or if they had not been so, I would not have made use of them in this present Subject before me: Whenever he finds that I have ventur'd at any small Conjectures, at the causes of the things that I have observed, I beseech him to look, upon them only as doubtful Problems, and uncertain ghesses, and not as unquestionable Conclusions, or matters of unconfutable Science.” 

And who else would have thought to observe of the flea: “The strength and beauty of this small creature, had it no other relation at all to man, would deserve a description.”


Hydriotaphia said...

Robert Hooke's 'Lectures and Collections' dated 1678 is listed as once in Sir T.B.'s library. Browne not only conducted his own 'elaboratory' investigations but wrote to, and encouraged others. He wrote to Boyle, uncertain whether there is a letter or two extant to Hoooke.

Anonymous said...

Astronomer Hooke would be the first to point out that 377 years ago he was still in his mother's womb and with over a week to wait to see the light of day.

Jonathan said...

God Bless Wikipedia *sarcasm*

"Great Britain and the British colonies, changed from Julian to Gregorian Calendar at midnight on Wednesday 2 September 1752,"

Fifty years after Hooke's death.

Sure, we can go back and change all British dates prior to 1752 to conform to the Gregorian calendar, but the reason most biographies list his DOB as July 18, is because for Hooke's entire life it was.

Hydriotaphia said...

No Jonathan, I am referring to my own 1986 edited by J.S.Finch edition of Sir T.B.'s library NOT Wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan approaches the question from an obtuse angle. The fact that for the whole of Hooke's life, his birthday was July 18th would have been immaterial to Hooke the astronomer though perhaps not the sentimental man. He would have insisted that he had been born on the 209th day of the year, not the 199th and in this he would have had to concur with Newton. Had his mother crossed the channel from the Isle of Wight and given birth in France, his birthday would have been July 28th. If this is 'Wikipedia sarcasm' then so be it. It is an expression I don't understand. As far as I can see it has nothing whatsoever to do with Wikipedia and nothing to do with sarcasm.

Jonathan said...

Dear Anonymous,

My comment was based on an assumption that has been proven false. I read your comment as just another example of drive-by pedantry fueled by Wikipedia. From this assumption sprung my appeal to sarcasm. Please accept my apologies.

I suppose you're correct that if he had been born in France his birthday would have been on July 28th. But I wonder (and perhaps you know this) whether Hooke would have counted the year as starting from January 1, or if would have ascribed to the Julian calendar's premise that the first year of the year was March 24?

Regardless, I do apologize for my earlier assumption, and the insult it gave.