A biography of a brilliant, largely forgotten, maverick - a major figure in the 17th - century cultural and scientific revolutions. Robert Hooke was an engineer, surveyor and scientist who was appointed London's Chief Surveyor after the Great Fire. He worked tirelessly with his great friend Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild London throughout the 1670s, personally creating some notable public and private buildings. Like his friends, Wren and Boyle, he was also a prominent experimentalist; he became the first Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in London; he was the propounder of Hooke's Law of elasticity, co-discoverer of Boyle's Law for gases, designer of an early balance-spring watch, and a virtuoso performer of gruesome public anatomical dissections of animals. As his intimate and confessional diary records, Hooke's life was rich with melodrama. He came to London, fatherless, aged 13 to seek his fortune. He never married but formed a long-running illicit relationship with his niece (his housekeeper). A dandy and a man of restless energy, a workaholic and an inveterate socialiser, he was a well-known man-about-town, an enthusiastic daily imbiber of the designer drugs of the time: coffee, tea, chocolate and tobacco; he took cannabis for his headaches, and worked late into the night fuelled by "poppy water" (opium). In later life he became unkempt and bedridden by illness, but maintained his social and intellectual activities. He argued with most of his peers, but his closest friendship, with Wren, remained unscathed. After violent rows with Sir Isaac Newton his name was wiped from the records of the Royal Society and his portrait destroyed after his death.
History hasn't been particularly kind to Robert Hooke. Inescapably linked to Sir Isaac Newton, with whom he famously feuded, Hooke was also a notable associate of surveyor Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry. Gifted in everything from architecture to anatomical dissection, he perhaps spread his knowledge too thin to have had a towering impact on any one field. His versatility combined with an impolitic personality damaged Hooke's standing in his lifetime and, author Lisa Jardine convincingly contends, in the centuries since his death. Jardine, the author of On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Christopher Wren , once again delves deep into the 17th century to resurrect the reputation of "a founding figure in the European scientific revolution." A London-based professor of renaissance studies, Jardine brings great enthusiasm to her task, even embarking on some detective work to discover what she convincingly contends is a long-lost painting of Hooke, whose appearance had heretofore been limited to unflattering descriptions by his contemporaries. As readable as it is thoroughly researched, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke will stand for some time as the definitive account of one of history's great dabblers. --Steven Stolder