By James Dacey
There’s no doubt that during his time the natural philosopher Robert Hooke was something of an outsider, depicted by his chroniclers as “jealous” and “mistrustful”. But over the past three centuries, historians have come to realize that Hooke may well have been a far more important Enlightenment figure than first assumed. Today, in a further attempt to reposition Hooke’s place in the history of science, a new portrait will be unveiled in London at the headquarters of the Institute of Physics – which publishes Physics World.
Hooke was part of the group of natural philosophers that formed the Royal Society, becoming the first curator of experiments in 1662. Records show that during his career Hooke’s research spanned a gamut of interests, including biological organisms, gas experiments and the nature of light. But despite the range of his work, Hooke is only known for his eponymous law – which states that the extension of a spring is proportional to the force applied.
Hooke’s achievements began to be readdressed, however, around the tercentenary of his death in 2003, when several biographers re-explored his life and painted Hooke in a more favourable light. It was suggested that the credit for much of Hooke’s work ended up going to his contemporaries, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.
These claims gathered further weight with the discovery in 2006 of Hooke’s folio in a Hampshire country house. In these notes, Hooke had detailed the minutes of meetings at the Royal Society during his tenure as curator of experiments. Among the revelations, the notes show that Hooke was the first to state that gravity causes the elliptical motion of the planets – an idea that Newton later developed into the famous inverse-square law.
The creation of this new portrait is hoped to further improve Hooke’s status. The picture will be unveiled today during a day of talks at the Institute’s headquarters that has been organized to commemorate Hooke’s life. The work has been produced by Rita Greer, a history painter, who has depicted the natural philosopher with a notebook and quill under his right arm. In his left hand is a spring to represent Hooke’s law of elasticity.
It’s a slightly eerie image, where Hooke appears in the moonlight with bags under his eyes and his well-documented hunched back. But Greer is committed to helping Hooke get the credit he deserves for his work. “Robert Hooke, brilliant, ingenious 17th-century scientist was brushed under the carpet of history by Newton and his cronies,” she says. “When he had his tercentenary, there wasn’t a single memorial to him anywhere. I thought it disgraceful as Hooke did many wonderful things for science. I have been working on a project to put him back into history where he belongs – up with the greats.”