science

Feveral ufeful Inftruments and Contrivances

I just got through reading London’s Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke. It is not very good, but Hooke is so interesting that it doesn’t really matter. Scientist, engineer, inventor, astronomer, horologist, architect, city planner, natural philosopher, professor, hypochondriac, surveyor, diarist, the comparisons with Leonardo are not idle. It is strange that he is so little known, but like Leonardo, he was interested in everything and tended to flit from one subject to the next without actually finishing things. I am the same myself (I am not saying that I’m a genius: that is for others to say. I’m just better at starting things than I am at finishing them).

One nice bit in the book is Hooke’s to-do list for October 1663, which I think underlines the point:

  • Prepare a paper on what should be observed and recorded for a history of weather
  • Make and demonstrate a hygroscope from the beard of a wild oat, with an index
  • Prepare two thermometers invented by Christopher Wren, one of tin, the other of glass
  • Make an artificial eye
  • Arrange for a suitable concave glass to be made and use it for projecting a picture in a lighted room
  • Cut out a piece of dog’s skin and stitch it together again to see if it will grow
  • Take lodgings in Gresham College and supervise the operator in making a new air-pump and a machine for measuring the force of gunpowder
  • Show microscopical observations of a common fly and of moss growing on a brick
  • Take care of the [Royal] Society’s repository in the west gallery of Gresham College and place a label on each object so people can know what it is and its provenance
  • Get ready to demonstrate to the King [Hooke’s] new device for taking soundings at sea without using a line
  • Graft feathers onto a cock’s comb

I love that. Insanely ambitious doesn’t even begin to cover it! Of course he invented and built many extraordinary things and is justly famous for his Micrographia full of astoundingly detailed engravings of insects and plants and minerals under the microscope, and discovered Hooke’s Law, and designed telescopes and barometers and watches and astrolabes and sextants and air-pumps and hygrometers and magnetometers and gravimeters and cider presses and calculators and windmills and, bizarrely, a ‘whale-shooting engine’, but you have to laugh at the sheer intellectual exuberance and chutzpah demonstrated by a list like that. I think we would have got on.

Now I am reading David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals, which is really intresting and not a dusty old book of phillersophy like you thought. It is like one of those great drunken conversations about life that you have when you get back from the pub, only Hume was probably not eating a kebab at the time.

I think it would have been great to go down the pub with Hooke and Hume for a pint of Leffe and some nuts, and intellergent conversation. I need to invent a time machine as many of the people that I really want to talk to are rarther inconsiderately dead.