I've been a fan of Robert Hooke for many years. I wrote my B.A. paper about him in college. One of the most frustrating aspects of that project was the lack of a good modern biography of the man (although it did make me rely on primary sources like Hooke's diaries, which is always a Good Thing). So when I heard about Lisa Jardine's biography The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, I had high hopes. Ms. Jardine is an expert on the early history of Britain's Royal Society and the dawn of the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps my hopes were a little too high, for I came away from Jardine's book feeling unsatisfied.
She does an excellent job investigating Hooke's life, especially his early years on the Isle of Wight and his important work reconstructing London after the Great Fire of 1666. We tend to think of Hooke as a scientist only, but he was also a surveyor and architect, and Jardine makes the important point that he may not be as well-remembered as his contemporaries Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, or Christopher Wren precisely because he was involved in so many fields of endeavor that he never found the time to really excel in one of them.
Her research is thorough -- she has even dug up what may be a portrait of Hooke, a real find since it was believed all existing pictures of the man were discarded by the Royal Society after his death as an act of petty revenge by Isaac Newton. Certainly the portrait matches the description of Hooke given by contemporaries.
The two great flaws of the book are that it neglects the details of Hooke's scientific work, and suffers from a bit too much hero-worship.
Perhaps leaving out detailed descriptions of Hooke's scientific work was a conscious decision. This is, after all, a book intended for the mass market rather than historians of science, and it would be all too easy to bore readers with endless accounts of quaint Restoration-era research. But Hooke was one of the first professional scientists in modern history, and a bit more detail about certain experiments would give readers a useful glimpse at how science was done.
In particular, I was amazed at her lack of attention to Hooke's Micrographia. It was more than a revolutionary scientific book, it was a best-seller -- possibly the first "coffee-table book." It sparked a fad for microscopes among the educated class in Britain which lasted a century or more. (Check out King George III's microscope.)
In the hero-worship department, Jardine is sometimes too quick to excuse Hooke for his outbursts of paranoia and credit-hogging. As a result, she winds up downplaying his long feud with Newton, partly because it reflected so badly on Hooke. Quite simply, his claim to have anticipated Newton's work on gravity was just plain wrong. When Newton said that making a guess isn't the same as rigorously proving it, he was correct.
On the other hand, the strongly favorable tone of the biography does go a long way toward correcting some long-standing errors. Other writers frequently cite Newton's description of Hooke as a man of "strange unsociable temper"; Jardine points out that it was Newton who spent twenty years holed up at Cambridge doing alchemy while Hooke was at the center of London's intellectual and commercial life.
Jardine also indulges from time to time in unwarranted speculations based on thin evidence. She theorizes that Robert's niece (and occasional mistress) Grace Hooke may have been the unidentified mother of an illegitimate child fathered by a landowner on the Isle of Wight, and cites Robert's diary as proof because he mentions Grace being ill with measles at about the time the child was born. Jardine speculates that "measles" was the public excuse. But why would Robert have written the cover story in his personal diary? It's hard to believe that a man who candidly recorded every time he slept with her would be so delicate about recording her pregnancy.
Despite the shortcomings I've detailed, this is a very readable and interesting book, and paints a picture of a man who has been very unjustly neglected in the history of science.