Microbiographia | Issue 15
Robert Hooke – British Polymath / Peter Pan’s nemesis*
Hey person reading Critic, here’s your first taste of Microbiographia: awesome people you should have heard of but might not have. Each week I’ll profile a different historical bad-ass, letting you know why they deserve wider acclaim and, on occasion, why they currently languish in obscurity. My selections are probably going to be biased in a couple of ways. I’m thinking Europeans with philosophical or scientific achievements are likely to be over-represented. This isn’t personal, it’s just that I happen to know more about said people than, say, Chinese athletes. Anyways, I’ll do my best. Our first subject is Robert Hooke, a European scientist.
The mid-17th century was a turbulent time for England. In 1666, the Devil’s year, outbreaks of plague caused the closure of Cambridge University. In September that same year, the Great Fire destroyed much of London. Amidst such turmoil, Robert Hooke rose to prominence. Through his various scientific achievements, Hooke became head of the Royal Society and established himself as one of Europe’s leading minds. This was no mean feat considering his contemporaries included Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton.
Although Hooke’s interests were diverse, his biggest achievement was probably in the field of microscopy (ironically, this was also his smallest achievement). He spent a lot of time tinkering around with microscopes and drawing the stuff he saw. These collected drawings became Micrographia, the first scientific bestseller (hey look! It’s like the title! I see what I did there) It was in Micrographia that Hooke coined the term “cell”. This, as it turns out, is probably his best-known achievement. Health Scis basically have a course named by him.
Hooke’s accomplishments don’t stop there. He was the architect of various iconic London buildings (Bedlam, St Paul’s). What’s more, he conducted important work on memory, gravitation, and astronomy. In fact, considering the breadth and substance of his achievements, it seems odd that he’s not better known. Historians have called Hooke “England’s Leonardo” – but everyone knows who Leonardo is. Most people who’ve heard of Hooke only know him through high-school physics (Hooke’s law). So what happened? How does such an accomplished man, so prominent in his time, come to wallow in relative obscurity?
The answer (gasp!) is through the dastardly machinations of one Sir Isaac Newton. That’s right, the famous guy with the apple and gravity who, it turns out, was a bit of a dick. Newton had beef with Hooke about gravitation. Hooke published some work on this before Newton, then accused him of pilfering ideas. So when Hooke died, Newton did his best to conceal his achievements. This included the destruction of all known portraits. Harsh.
*Not actually true; that was Captain James Hook.