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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

The Curious Life of Robert Hooke

Lisa Jardine

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Curious Life of Robert Hooke

Title: The Curious Life of Robert Hooke
Author: Lisa Jardine
Genre: Biography
Written: 2003
Length: 326 pages
Availability: The Curious Life of Robert Hooke - US
The Curious Life of Robert Hooke - UK
The Curious Life of Robert Hooke - Canada
  • The Man Who Measured London
  • With numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overview of an interesting figure

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 15/9/2003 Noel Malcolm
The Guardian A 13/9/2003 Jenny Uglow
The Independent . 17/10/2003 Diana Souhami
Literary Review . 9/2003 A.C.Grayling
New Scientist . 8/11/2003 David Hughes
New Statesman . 22/9/2003 Ann Wroe
The NY Times Book Rev. A 25/4/2004 Derek Hirst
The Observer . 5/10/2003 Jonathan Heawood
The Spectator . 4/10/2003 David Hughes
Sunday Telegraph . 21/9/2003 Anne Somerset
The Times . 13/9/2003 Lewis Wolpert
The Washington Post . 21/3/2004 Henry Petroski

  Review Consensus:

  More about Hooke than the book, but generally very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Professor Jardine has had the benefit of reading Inwood's book; she has also been able to do more research on Hooke's early years on the Isle of Wight; she has made some important archival discoveries (in particular, the records of a court case challenging the disposal of Hooke's property after his death); and she has identified what may well be a hitherto unknown portrait of Hooke. For all these reasons -- plus the descriptive brio of her prose -- it might be thought that Inwood's book was now superseded. But although Jardine has important information to add, Inwood's remains the fuller account" - Noel Malcolm, Daily Telegraph

  • "In this thoughtful, crisp and finely illustrated biography, Lisa Jardine sets out to adjust the balance. Hooke has not been neglected -- his writings and diary have been edited, modern studies abound, and a new biography by Stephen Inwood appeared last year. But he remains a puzzle. (...) Perhaps because Jardine has written about him before (...) there are some gaps -- I should have liked to know more about his work with microscopes, and his ideas about astronomy -- but to compensate she offers a vivid map of the byways of patronage and politics that governed British intellectual life." - Jenny Uglow, The Guardian

  • "Much of Jardine's book is like accompanying this frenzied man to the office. Hooke was always overworked and in litigation over some dispute about intellectual property or arrears of pay. He was unattractive, with a deformed spine and pinched face, and seemed to have had no confiding friendships, no leisure, no love. About half-way through, Jardine changes direction to concentrate on Hooke the physical man." - Diana Souhami, The Independent

  • "However, it is the public Hooke who matters most here, and he is well served by Jardine, who richly restores to him his due, at the same time adding another stimulating chapter to the history of a great century and its spectacular achievements." - A.C.Grayling, Literary Review

  • "Ultimately, we cannot really grasp who the man was, and the existing, lizard-like portrait is not much help, either; for this may not be Hooke at all, although Jardine makes a fairly strong case for it. His elusiveness may owe something to the structure of this book. It is arranged more by themes than chronology, and the private life is tucked at the end rather than informing our view of the man as we read through. And though this is a good, thorough, sympathetic biography, it lacks two things: a feel for the age -- the colour and smell and mood of it -- and a sense of the excitement of scientific discovery." - Ann Wroe, New Statesman

  • "Hooke's range is breathtaking, and Jardine gives us a wonderful sense of the pace of his life as he drugged himself into frenzied sleeplessness and coldly listed his own symptoms. (...) Her well-documented presentation of Hooke's relations with the scientific community of a late-17th-century London he helped to reshape is a tour de force -- social history as well as biography." - Derek Hirst, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(H)er meticulously researched, engrossing book tells the tale of an eternal backroom boy. Her Robert Hooke is a great and generous collaborator, whose assistance was crucial to the development of Robert Boyle's pneumatology, Christopher Wren's architecture and, perhaps, even Newton's physics, but whose very generosity crippled him from attaching his own name to these achievements until it was too late." - Jonathan Heawood, The Observer

  • "Jardine has immense affection for her subject and her biography fizzes with enthusiasm. Sometimes her lavishly illustrated book seems oddly structured: the impact of Micrographia, for example, is discussed fairly late, even though it was published at the start of Hooke's career. In general, however, this is a fine memorial to a man of astounding ingenuity who never quite attained greatness. Jardine cannot make Hooke wholly likeable, but her scholarly and lively account admirably captures his versatility." - Anne Somerset, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(E)xcellent and beautifully illustrated" - Lewis Wolpert, The Times

  • "(H)er lucid and easy-reading prose paints a vivid portrait of a curiously overlooked historical figure." - Henry Petroski, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was a leading scientific figure of his time, but -- so Jardine -- "has faded, over time from the public's imagination." An eponymous law (Hooke's law of elasticity), a prominent role in the Royal Society, and his part as -- as Jardine's subtitle has it -- The Man Who Measured London after the Great Fire are what he is best remembered for, but Jardine feels that he hasn't gotten his due and wants with this book nothing less than to:

retrieve Hooke and his genius, and give him back the status he undoubtedly deserves today, as a groundbreaking thinker and brilliant experimentalist, a founding figure in the European scientific revolution.
       Whether Hooke is really as overlooked or underappreciated as Jardine claims is open for debate (consider, for example, the prominent place and role he has in Neal Stephenson's recent novel, Quicksilver), but he certainly has suffered some neglect. The previous major biography was Margaret 'Espinasse's 1956 work (though Stephen Inwood's The Man who Knew too Much came out as Jardine was writing her book (2002)) -- and it was long believed there was not even an extant portrait of Hooke. (Jardine believes she found one, one of the intriguing side-stories in the book.)
       Jardine notes that Hooke set out to write his autobiography in 1697, having purchased "a small Pocket-Diary" for that purpose. Typically, he did not manage to jot down more than a few sentences; as Jardine notes: "he habitually took on too much and promised to deliver more than it was sensible for him to commit to." In the case of writing his life-story his inability to set it down neatly on the page is not at all surprising: he did a great deal, and yet accomplished almost nothing that has the memorable finality of, say, Newton's discoveries. Jardine also has to deal with this in her biography of the man, and it turns out to be quite a hurdle.
       The Curious Life of Robert Hooke comes with more than 60 pages of fine-print, double-columned notes, but the text itself is barely more than 300 pages (richly illustrated at that). It's a lot of life to squeeze into so little space. Jardine suggests a focus with her subtitle -- Hooke as The Man Who Measured London -- but the book admits there was far more to him, and gives equal space to his important work with and at the Royal Society, and many of his other endeavours.
       Jardine is particularly good at explaining the political situations in those times, and the effect these had on Hooke's life. He was born on the Isle of Wight, and eventually inevitably caught up in the civil wars of that time. King Charles I had his last stand there, arriving in 1647, and, complicating matters for Hooke, his father died in 1648. Hooke went to London and managed to impress at school and university, leading eventually to his coming to becoming an assistant for Robert Boyle.
       The Royal Society, chartered in 1662, was an ideal scientific institution for Hooke to show his talents - except that his talents were so much in demand that he overextended himself, taking on experiments and promising assistance to more people than he could possibly handle. This was the story of his life. It also prevented him from devoting himself entirely to any single project or undertaking:
All things to all men, he had neither the opportunity nor perhaps the inclination to pursue any of the many interesting fields into which he was drawn on behalf of others, so as to see any major project through to completion, or to stick with any knotty mathematical problem through to its solution.
       What he did, however, was fascinating: from astronomy to microscopy to watch-making, he dabbled in most everything. Jardine gives a decent overview of some of these projects, and the illustrations bring much of this to life, but it's hard material to simply survey and one wishes for a more detailed and specific account of it.
       Of particular note, of course, are Hooke's claims to credit for work by Newton and Huygens (among others), and Jardine nicely presents these acrimonious (and therefore often entertaining) disputes.
       Jardine gives a decent impression of the man as well, especially his declining years. His self-medicating drug use (he "became a habitual, systematic consumer of a wide range of more or less toxic pharmaceutical 'remedies', which produced as many unpleasant symptoms as they cured") is particularly harrowing, helping to leave him "a physical wreck, emaciated and haggard" by age sixty-five.
       Methodical and scientifically-minded, Hooke's weaknesses -- especially taking too much on and seeing too little to completion -- dominate his life. Among the most amusing documents of many Jardine quotes is the draft of his will (he died intestate, of course), in which he writes:
I doe bequeath & give to my good friends A, B, C, & D. my whole Estate Real & Personal
       Jardine notes that: "Hooke could apparently not decide which four names to insert here."
       The illustrations are also a nice complement to the text, from a fascinating glimpse of his diary to some of his designs (architectural and scientific).
       Hooke's life is hard to get a grip on, as he did so much (and lived in busy, complicated times, with politics -- scientific and otherwise -- playing an enormous role). Jardine presents a good amount of material, but even so it feels more like an overview than a full biography. She does convey his significance (but was his significance really ever in doubt ?) and situates him well in his times. The Royal Society, and figures from Newton to Wren, are nicely developed in relation to Hooke. Still, one is left with the feeling that there is a lot more to this man.

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The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: Reviews: Robert Hooke: Lisa Jardine: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British scholar Lisa Jardine was born in 1944 and died in 2015.

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© 2004-2022 the complete review

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