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A boy in Britain - Robert Hooke - lost manuscript online

I think there might be boys like Robert Hooke in Britain today - boys who like to tinker with machines but are bored with school and don't want to be confined in a classroom. Hooke often had headaches, so his father let him stay home.

When Hooke was a teenager his father died, and Hooke decided to get an education. Learning seemed attractive to him, perhaps partly because he had not been forced to attend school. The headaches disappeared.

The story is that he learned algebra in a week. Before he was 20 he was building equipment and conducting experiments for the scientific genius Robert Boyle. When he was 25 Hooke was made Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, the world's first independent fellowship-based academy of science.

Hooke was fascinated by everything he touched. He developed the universal joint, which couples rotating shafts and, I'm told, is essential to a car’s drive shaft today. He formulated the basis for modern construction with his law of elasticity, which describes the stresses and strains of building materials. He invented the iris diaphragm later used in cameras, and improved the telescope and barometer.

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A flea drawn by Hooke who looked at it under the compound microscope he invented. His microscope revealed a hidden world of biological and mineral structure. Image: Wikipedia Commons

Hooke identified and named the plant cell. He developed the wave theory of light, and theorised that gravity acts more powerfully when bodies are closer, an idea that may predate Newton's Inverse Square Law of Gravitational Attraction. Like a great force of nature, ideas flew off Hooke like sparks from a fire.

During his association with the Royal Society from 1661 to 1682, Hooke kept minutes of the scientific proceedings, but sometime after he died, the manuscript vanished. Then in 2006 the manuscript was discovered gathering dust in a house in Hampshire, and the Royal Society purchased it for more than £1 million with the help of an unnamed donor and the Wellcome Trust.

Hooke's notes may illuminate his stormy relationship with Newton. They should shed light on the scientific ideas and personalities of a stunning period of scientific history.

I hope they tell me something about the young scientist who accomplished so much. The latest news is that the Society has just put Hooke’s manuscript online.


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