Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Robert Hooke revival by Dr J. Michael McBride at NYUAD

I had read a little about Robert Hooke, but Dr J. Michael McBride's talk about this English polymath at New York University Abu Dhabi really blew my mind. Dr McBride has definitely done a thorough job of researching the man, covering practically every milestone in life of this under-appreciated giant of the Royal Society and science history.

Apart from being a gifted illustrator from an early age (and a would-be painter, but for his physiological aversion to oil paint), as Dr McBride showed with several slides of Hooke's incredibly detailed scientific drawings, Hooke was also responsible for seminal work on optics (including microscopy and telescopy), physics (making him the namesake of a spring action law) and mechanics (including the anchor escapement, the universal joint and helical gears, the latter two of which are practically indispensable in automobiles). His talent was noticed early on, as he was picked up in his youth as an assistant to the famous Robert Boyle, building him instrumental scientific equipment.

Hooke was also heavily involved in rebuilding London after the Great Fire, and had a strong grasp of the theory of gravity, a lot of the credit for the both of which were taken by Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton; one would emerge from the talk with a rather unflattering opinion of Wren and Newton, and an appreciation of both the genius and the humility of Hooke. Dr McBride also gave us insight into the crazy schedule of a man who had to birth a discovery or at least conduct a major experiment practically every other day, was a cannabis proponent, and had a thing for using anagrams to encode his ideas. Hooke was apparently also the first to use the word "crystallization", and to employ the word "cell" in a biological sense.

Unfortunately for himself, Hooke kept a low profile and annoyed a few powerful rivals, and has therefore been relegated to relative anonymity in history - something that scholars like Dr McBride hope to change. 

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