August 30,  2004
Volume 82, Number 35
pp. 42-43



THE FORGOTTEN GENIUS: The Biography of Robert Hooke 16351703, by Stephen Inwood, MacAdam/Cage, 2003, 475 pages, $28.50 (ISBN 1-931561-56-7)



Stephen Inwood's book, "The Forgotten Genius: The Biography of Robert Hooke 1635 1703," was originally published in 2002 as "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Perhaps the latter title was better for this readable and well-referenced biography of a pioneering scientist who was overshadowed by his contemporaries, such as Sir Isaac Newton, but certainly not forgotten. In fact, Inwood's book is one of two Hooke biographies released this year. The other is Lisa Jardine's "The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London," published by HarperCollins.

Hooke would have found the attention appropriate, as he was comfortable being "a genius." Inwood paints a vivid picture of Hooke as an eccentric polymath with a finger--some would say a fist--in virtually every scientific development of the 17th century. Far from modest, Hooke was a boor who made sure he claimed credit for his own inventions and those of a few others. It's not too far a stretch to say Hooke believed he invented everything. While he did come up with good ideas and was a great experimentalist, the problem Hooke had was that he rarely followed through on developing theories.

Hooke didn't focus solely on science. His genius was brought to bear on rebuilding London after the great fire of 1666. Hooke and his friend, the noted architect Christopher Wren, were instrumental in rebuilding the city. Hooke worked on reconstruction primarily as a surveyor and planner, making a small fortune in this endeavor. Meanwhile, he worked full speed on scientific projects. One wonders how he found the time to fit everything in. Jardine, by the way, wrote her biography of Hooke as a follow-up to her biography of Wren published by HarperCollins in 2002.

Scientists--especially physicists and chemists--will chuckle as they recognize some of their colleagues in the personalities of Hooke and his archrival Newton. Inwood spends many pages on this frequently personal rivalry over who discovered what and when (C&EN, June 28, page 46). No detail is spared in the discussion of the discovery of the inverse square law of gravity, for example, which most people credit to Newton.

In the final analysis, neither Newton nor Hooke is portrayed in a particularly flattering light, but Newton had a sense of focus along with a better knowledge of mathematics. He also had better publicists.

That said, I'm guessing that biographies of better remembered luminaries aren't nearly as funny as Inwood's take on Hooke. Readers will get a kick out of Hooke's role in the intrigue and politics of the infant Royal Society and laugh out loud at Hooke's obsessive record-keeping of his bodily functions. Inwood's description of 17th-century London coffeehouse society is also revealing.

The volume is nicely illustrated with 16 pages of Hooke's drawings, inventions, and contemporary illustrations. The index offers the reader many leads to further study of Hooke and his times.

Linda R. Raber is C&EN's assistant managing editor for ACS News & Special Features, with an interest in the history of England.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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