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July 18, 1635: Robert Hooke – The Last Virtuoso of Silly Science


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So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ‘em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.
Thus every poet, in his kind,
Is bit by him that comes behind.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

June 2, 1676 the Duke’s Company performed the spectacle “The Virtuoso” in the Dorset Garden Theatre in London. “The Virtuoso” was a comedy of great success, a tale about a strange philosopher – busy to explore, as he believed, the greatest secrets of nature: He measured the weight of nothing, used glowing mushrooms on putrefying flesh to read in the dark, tried to transfer blood between a sheep and a man to improve hair growth, taught spiders to dance and dissected a living dog.

This Silly Science and apparent nonsensical and crazy experiments caused great laughter in the public – only one man was not amused – Robert Hooke, Fellow of the Royal Society, architect, physicist, engineer, astronomer, but most important natural philosopher and the model for the buffoon on the stage. Hooke had in fact studied the weight of air, observed the decay and putrefaction of flesh, even how lungs work (in a living dog, an experiment he later will regret to have done).

Hooke was an acknowledged expert for the construction of scientific instruments, curator for experiments at the Royal Society and the first scholar to earn a living by research and applied science – or so he believed.

Born July 18, 1635, already in early years he became fascinated by the natural world. Hooke loved to search for fossils on the limestone cliffs of the Isle of Wigth (his birthplace) and already then the explanation of the time – fossils as products of a divine intervention- didn’t satisfy his curiosity.

In 1648 he went to London to study art, music and mathematics. He became a gifted engineer and constructed a sophisticated microscope and other tools to improve his senses – following the advice of philosopher of science Francis Bacon, Hooke believed that a man of science should trust only his senses to understand the natural world. It is this philosophy that pushes Hooke also to perpetuate experiments on topics the general public considers absurd.

In 1665 he published “Micrographia: or some Physilogical Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon“. In this work he not only depicts animals and plants observed under a microscope, but he discusses also questions regarding astronomy, physics, geology, volcanoes and fossils.

Fig.1. Ammonites as drawn by Robert Hooke himself and described in his “Discourses of Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions”, published after his death in 1705 (image in public domain).

He was one of the first naturalists to see fossil forams. Having examined the calcareous shells with his microscope he compare this unknown animal with

the shell of a small water-snail with a flat spiral shell: it had twelve wreathings […] all in proportion growing one less than another toward the middle or centre of the shell, where there was a very small round white spot.

He observed also other striking similarities between petrifactions and living organisms. The similarities in the structure of charcoal and fossil wood (as we today know) convinced Hooke that fossils were the remains of once living organisms, however impregnated by “petrifying” fluids.

Fig.2 and 3. Comparison between plant cells, term adopted by Hooke himself, as seen in a piece of cork (above) and in a section of petrified wood (below), from Micrographia (1665) (images in public domain).

For Hook the discovery of petrified marine organisms (like the forams) on dry land is also evidence of profound changes in the distribution of the land and the sea in a remote past – and everybody should be able to read such clues:

There is no coin that can give such sure information to an archaeologist about the fact that there was a distinct kingdom ruled by a distinct prince, as these fossils give certainty to an natural archaeologist that these countries were once submerged, that there were these kinds of animals and that previously there were such changes and alterations in the surface of the earth [...] and these documents are written in more readable letters than the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians, and on more durable material than the magnificent Egyptian pyramids and obelisks.

Hooke dies in 1703, his geological observations forgotten for almost a century.

Despite his achievements in so many fields, Hooke doesn’t publish much of his studies, always switching between research subjects his few publications are general and unspecific; he produces many ideas, but follows few of them. He later will often claim priority – like on the nature of fossils – but due the lack of published evidence he is seen more as a troublemaker than real scientist. It is this behavior that will be mocked in 1676 by “The Virtuoso” and enforce the misconceptions by the general public of his work. Hooke had also the misfortune to live in a period of change, as natural philosophers, dealing and musing about the entire “cosmos”, are now replaced by specialists in their respective field, like the promising physicist Newton – no more Silly Science

Bibliography:

DRAKE, E.T. (2007): The geological observations of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) on the Isle of Wigth. In WYSE JACKSON, P. N. (ed.) Four Centuries of Geological Travel: The Search for Knowledge on Foot, Bicycle, Sledge and Camel. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287: 19-30
ELLENBERGER, F. (1999): History of Geology: The great awakening and its first fruits, 1660-1810. Vol.2. Balkema Publishers, Brookfield: 409
MESENHÖLLER, M. (2010): Das gescheiterte Genie. GEO 08/August: 77-88

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. David Marjanović 7:08 am 07/19/2013

    Newton is said to have deliberately made fun of Hooke, who was rather short, when he talked about standing on the shoulders of giants.

    I find it very interesting that Hooke used “natural archaeologist”.

    Island of Wigth

    Isle of Wight.

    Link to this

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