New: Book Report: The Curious Life of Robert Hooke

Robert Hooke was a scientist during the 1600s. Did you read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle? Of course you did. Or you at least got started. Robert Hooke was one of the mad scientists that figures large in the Cycle. Was he really such a weirdo?

This biography says yes. Do not read this biography for a great story. Hooke's life did not follow a clear narrative arc. He dabbled in many fields, was stymied, and occasionally overcome. But biographer Lisa Jardine chased down plenty of good bits and details. Some you will already be familiar with after having read the Baroque Cycle (if you made it through): kicking out king Charles, the fire of London, the Orange/Dutch invasion.

But the Baroque Cycle, despite its length, left out some good bits. Sure, you can read in there about scientists being "cut for the stone", but apparently things got worse:

On 16 November 1672, Hooke recorded in his diary that he had learned in conversation with Boyle and Wren that Wilkins was gravely ill 'of the stone', as it was thought. A team of Royal Society medical men prescribed remedies, including Hooke's Gresham colleague and personal physician Dr Goddard:

(16) Blackfryers, Bridewell, Dr. Wren, Mr. Boyle, Cox. Lord Chester [Wilkins] desperately ill of the stone, stoppage of urine 6 dayes. oyster shells 4 red hot quenched in cyder a quart and drank, advised by Glanvill. Another prescribed flegma acidum succini rectifactum cum sale tartari [acid precipitate of amber refined with salt of tartar]. Dr. Godderd advisd Blisters of cantharides [Spanish fly] applyd to the neck and feet or to the vains.


(19) Mr. Lee here. Lord Bishop of Chester dyed about 9 in the morning of a suppression of urine. ... Sir Theodore Devaux told me of Sir Th. Meyerns cure of stone in kidneys by blowing up bladder with bellows etc.

On 20 November, however, Hooke was present at dinner with other Royal Society members when the doctor who had performed an autopsy on Wilkin's body arrived and reported that no sign of kidney stones had been found... Hooke and his medical colleagues [had] administered highly toxic 'physic' to the body of their sick colleague, and watched for alleviating symptoms which did not come.

Wow, blowing up bladders of a living human with a bellows. Poisoning friends in pursuit of a medical cure... and this book is full of stuff like that. (Actually, I'm not 100% sure that the bellows didn't make it into the Cycle. I'm not going to go back and re-read the whole thing now to make sure. If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone will eventually correct me.)

I'd already heard of Hooke, though I didn't know it. He was the Hooke behind Hooke's law describing the behavior of springs. Apparently he figured that out while trying to develop a clock during the race for longitude. This guy was everywhere.

Anyhow, if you made it through the Baroque Cycle and asked for more Mad Science, please, then this is a good follow-up book.

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Posted 2005-10-19