[NOTE: I'm all better now, or mostly so, but now must scramble madly to catch up on all the work I couldn't do when I was being an ailing slug-a-bed. So I must ask my readers to forbear just a bit longer, and endure one more repost, this one from waaay back in the earliest days of the cocktail party: i.e., March 2006. We'll be back with original posting later this week. Lots of neat science stuff happened while I was in a drugged-up fog!]
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Ya gotta love John Donne, who was quite possibly the first English poet to find romance in a blood-sucking, disease-carrying insect. He penned the above lines (from his aptly titled poem, "The Flea") in 1633, two years before the English scientist Robert Hooke was born, and a good 30 years before publication of Hooke's magnum opus, the Micrographia, a rumination on the wonders of nature that Hooke had witnessed firsthand with what was then a relatively new scientific instrument: the microscope.
What does Hooke's masterpiece have to do with Donne's famous verse, you might be wondering? Well, the Micrographia contained the now-famous microscopic drawing of a flea, rendering its anatomy in such vivid detail that it might have given even the rather flinty Donne pause about using it as a poetic image/motif for purposes of seduction. Then again, Donne is the guy who compared himself and his lady love to "stiff twin compasses," so maybe not; he wasn't exactly squeamish. And by all accounts he scored with women quite frequently, possibly even with the daughter of Sir Thomas More, so his pick-up lines were clearly effective. I guess some things still manage to retain their aura of wonder under the harsh light of day.
(Jen-Luc Piquant points out that even the high self-regard of some people is immune to the magnification of their flaws under a metaphorical microscope, as evidenced by the fatuous ravings of a drunk girl at 47th Street and 9th Avenue, which Jen-Luc stumbled upon while trolling the fabulous Website, Overheard in New York. Quoth the girl: "Sometimes, when I look at myself through the microscope of cold, hard objectivity, I think to myself, 'God, you are awesome!'" So, too, the humble flea.)
The entire genre of popular science books might be traced back to Hooke's tome, which caused a sensation among the general populace when it appeared in bookstores in January 1665 -- not just because the writing style was accessible (at least for the time), but because it had pictures. Everybody loves pictures. Plus, they provide a handy visual aid to any discussion of science. Thanks to his earlier apprenticeship to an artist -- before he quit, claiming that the paint fumes irritated his chest -- Hooke was a gifted draftsman and, in his pre-photographic era, had been able to draw whatever he observed under his microscope, offering others a fresh perspective on common objects they took for granted: from fleas and woven silk, to carrots and common mold. Micrographia literally changed the way people looked at the world.
Nonetheless, for centuries Hooke's stature as a scientist was largely overshadowed by his contemporary rival, Isaac Newton, who penned the massive, three-volume Principia, one of the most influential scientific books ever written, yet ironically one of the least read. The famous 18th century mathematician Joseph LaGrange described the Principia as "the greatest production of a human mind." There's no denying that Newton's work laid the foundations of modern physics, but from the standpoint of accessibility and readability, it fails miserably -- at least to a layperson like me. Three volumes of mathematical theory on the nature of gravity and the laws of motion, rendered in excruciatingly pedantic 17th century prose is hardly summer beach reading. Plus, there are very few pictures to break up the monotony of all that gray text. Micrographia is a miracle of clarity in comparison. So I was pleased when there was a resurgence of interest in Hooke over the last several years, culminating with the publication of Lisa Jardine's excellent biography in 2004.
Hooke's long rehabilitation in the annals of history is nearly complete: he actually made headlines in England some six weeks ago when The Guardian reported that long-lost handwritten minutes from the meetings of the Royal Society -- spanning the years 1661 to 1682, when Hooke was one of the original founding members, and in charge of taking said minutes -- had been discovered wedged into a dusty nook in an old house in Hampshire. Among the more fascinating tidbits contained within the yellowed pages is correspondence with Newton and Sir Christopher Wren over the nature of gravity. Wren suggested they fire bullets into the air and measure where they landed to test Newton's hypothesis.
One hopes the notoriously prickly and hot-headed Hooke wasn't invited to participate in the shooting experiment. Given the bitter rancor between himself and Newton, the possibility of one of the men "pulling a Cheney," such that a seeming "stray bullet" hit a deadly mark, wasn't exactly far-fetched. Among other heated quarrels, they haggled over the nature of light: Newton said particle, Hooke (along with most others of that era) said wave, and it would be another four centuries before quantum mechanics mediated the dispute by declaring light was both particle and wave. Their professional debates quickly became personal: jealous of his rival's growing scientific reputation, Hooke may have tried to block Newton's election to the Royal Society, and impeded acceptance of the latter's work on optics among the members of that body -- one reason Newton published his second masterpiece, Opticks, only after Hooke's death.
Hooke had some cause to feel threatened: his varied practical (applied) contributions to science were indeed overlooked in favor of Newton's mathematically-oriented (fundamental) gravitational theories. Then there was sheer vanity. While Newton cut a distinguished, imposing figure, Hooke was small and hunched; even his friends described him in less than flattering terms. And Micrographia's popular appeal didn't save Hooke from being mercilessly satirized in a 1676 play by Thomas Shadwell called The Virtuoso, through the oft-ridiculed character of Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, an amateur scientist who "spent two thousand pounds on microscopes to find out the nature of eels in vinegar, mites in cheese, and the blue of plums, which he has subtly found to be living creatures." This less-than-flattering portrayal irritated Hooke greatly when the play premiered in London.
The newly discovered manuscript also lays to rest a long-standing controversy over whether Hooke or the Dutch physicist/astronomer Christiaan Huygens had designed a highly accurate watch with tiny spring mechanisms, that eventually led to the first measurements of longitude. Timepieces were among Hooke's many hobby horses. He was considered one of the finest makers of precision instruments in London, inventing a reflecting telescope, the sextant, the wind gauge and the wheel barometer, among other innovations. Even as a child, he tinkered incessantly, taking apart a big brass clock and applying what he'd learned of its inner workings to build a replica out of wood. (He was a skilled lens-grinder, too, and believed the long hours he spent bent over a lathe caused the pronounced stoop he developed later in life.) And he knew a lot about the physics of springs, having devised the eponymous Hooke's law, stating that extension is proportional to force. So when Huygens claimed to have invented a spring watch in 1675, Hooke flew into a rage, claiming someone had leaked his earlier design to Huygens. The new pages contain Hooke's notes on the minutes from that earlier meeting on June 23, 1670, proving that he indeed had proposed such a device before Huygens.
All of which makes the manuscript priceless. (Yes! Just like in those MasterCard commercials!) That didn't keep Bonhams, the auctioneers who discovered the pages, from pricing it at upwards of $1 million, and offering it for auction. The pages rightly should have been returned to the Royal Society, being part of that organization's long history, but the asking price was beyond the Society's limited financial resources.
So I was delighted to learn this morning that the Royal Society has indeed collared these rare pages for their own historical archives, thanks to generous donations from various unnamed individuals and organizations. (Jen-Luc Piquant, however, is miffed that said Royal Society had to fork over $1.75 million to reclaim 520 pages of their own minutes, and suggests I be more careful at maintaining my own haphazard filing system in the future.)
Hooke's Micrographia brought a certain honor -- by way of presenting such striking visual detail in an unforgettable image -- to the lowly, flawed flea, so it's fitting that this flawed, yet equally fascinating man should now be taking his rightful place of honor with the Society he helped found. After all, there's room for both Hooke and Newton within the annals of physics of history, without dishonoring the contributions of either. I suspect even Donne would agree, per the final couplet of his classic seduction poem: "Just so much honor, when thou yield'st to me,/Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee."