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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 18 August 2014

"The Man Who Knew Too Much" by Stephen Inwood

This is the biography of Robert Hooke. Lisa Jardine has also written a rather shorter and slightly more readable biography. Inwood's work is remarkable in that it is so comprehensive . It gives a compelling picture of a man who was driven to dabble in everything and, as a result, completed little.

Robert Hooke needed to earn his living in an era of remarkable scientists. Paying his way through Oxford, he became an assistant to Robert Boyle, building and maintaining the air pumps which led Boyle to Boyle's Law. He became involved with a group of natural philosophers in Oxford and then moved with them to London to become one of the founding members of the Royal Society. Needing an income he became their 'curator' which meant that he had to arrange weekly scientific demonstrations. His remarkable mechanical ability and the all-encompassing nature of his interests meant that he was the mainstay of Royal Society meetings; it may be argued that without Hooke the Society would have fallen away (although the equally remarkable Oldenburg who kept an incredible correspondence going with scientists all over Europe as well as publishing the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, mostly at his own expense, was also a key member).

Hooke was a little bit secretive and always on the look out for a little more money, especially since many of his regular sources of income such as the Gresham College lecture fees and his RS salary were often not paid! Much of what he demonstrated to RS members was unfinished, much of his theoretical work consisted of speculations, often published as anagrams of Latin phrases. As a result he got a reputation for always saying that he could improve on someone else's work (but often failing to deliver because of the pressure of time) or claiming that he had thought of something first. The classic situation was in his priority dispute with Newton over the inverse square law of gravitation. Inwood supplies evidence to suggest that Hooke's hints and suggestions helped Newton (a) think in terms of centripetal forces rather than centrifugal forces and (b) realise that the circular motion of the planets was caused by a combination of their inertia, seeking to continue in a straight line and the centripetal force of gravity. Hooke always claimed that he, rather than Newton, invented the inverse square idea. His early work shows that he was thinking of an inversely proportional force and that it was only later that he became convinced (and loudly tried to convince others) that, like light, gravity obeyed an inverse square relationship. However, by the time he got to this point Newton had almost certainly come to the same idea independently. Importantly, Hooke, the mechanical genius, did not have the mathematical ability to back up his inverse square speculation and he certainly did not have the leisure (or perhaps the ability to concentrate) to devote the two years of focussed effort that Newton put into his magnum opus, the Principia.

Hooke's glories were many. Apart from speculations which covered, in particular, mountain building and evolution (he was by no means afraid of religious unorthodoxy) he is famous for Hooke's Law, for his masterpiece Micrographia, andd for his architecture and surveying work in association with Christopher Wren to help rebuild London after the great fire (there is also a suggestion that he invented the sash window).

This biography is an exhaustive account of a great scientist whose many triumphs deserve to be better known.

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