BLOG Katya Johnson

NWR Issue 109

‘“The Secret Workings of Nature”: Robert Hooke and Early Science’, National Library of Wales

This modest exhibition situated in a top-floor annexe of the National Library of Wales celebrates the 350th anniversary of the publication of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia. A seminal treatise on the microscope, this book was one of a number of landmark publications to emerge from the Scientific Revolution and had a profound effect on shaping the Renaissance attitude to the natural world. Though ‘“The Secret Working Workings of Nature”: Robert Hooke and Early Science’ was a low-key exhibition and sometimes the focus drifted too far from Hooke himself, it was an informative and interesting delineation of Hooke’s contribution to science, well explained in relation to the scientific paradigm of his day.

The tiny room hosting the exhibition, which runs till 9 January 2016, felt like it had been scrambled together as an afterthought – its humble presence altogether dwarfed by the much larger exhibition of war photographer Philip Jones Griffiths going on next door. The show’s low profile seemed to be reinforced by the paltry number of signings in the guestbook: only twenty-five since July 2015. However, the exhibition itself was not disappointing and gave me plenty of food for thought.

Robert Hooke, most famous in school textbooks as the inventor of ‘Hooke’s law’, the law of elasticity, published his book based on findings from microscope research in 1665. Though he was not the inventor of the microscope, he was the first scientist to produce an illustrated book on microscopy – making the extraordinary power of the microscope available to all. Proving himself well ahead of his time, Hooke published his book in the vernacular rather than Latin – the scientific lingua franca of his day.

As a member of the Royal Society, elected to the position of ‘head curator of experiments’ in 1662, Hooke was a great rival of Newton’s. Like his famous counterpart, Hooke had a voracious appetite for knowledge in all its forms, particularly knowledge derived from experimentation and close observation. Thus, it was not surprising that he was so taken with the invention of the microscope, which offered him a key to the secret processes that underlie the visible appearance of the natural world. As he writes in Micrographia, ‘[B]y the help of Microscopes there is nothing so small as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding….’

Perhaps even more than his writing, I enjoyed looking at his copper-plate engravings: reproductions of the ‘little pictures’ he saw through the lens of his compound microscope. These clearly communicate his excitement about the technique of magnification. For example, one folio leaf shows what looks like a cartoonish globe with leopard-print continents. We are told that this is a highly magnified illustration of cork. Other illustrations show a close-up of a blue-bottle, a louse clutching a hair and what the point of a needle, a full stop and razor all look like under the microscope. This is characteristic Hooke, his highly detailed images are humorous, anecdotal and sometimes grisly; they are aimed to inspire the average reader. In fact, the way he construct his illustrations to sensationalise and drive interest, reminds me of the theatrical illustrations in the famous anatomical work by Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543).

As well as examining open page spreads of an edition of Micrographia which the National Library holds in its collection, the exhibition also featured classics of the early natural sciences such as a 1570 edition of Euclid’s The Elements of Geometry, a third edition of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and a beautifully illustrated edition of Aristotle’s Philosophy. However, despite the background detail in which John Hooke’s book was couched, far more interesting was direct assessment of the text itself. In general, though the exhibition was well curated with information panels, interactive screens and traditional displays display cabinets, the exhibition would have benefitted from more facsimile copies of the manuscript on display and further discussion of its illustrations and arguments, rather than such a strong focus on the impact of the work.

Katya Johnson is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Aberystwyth.

‘“The Secret Workings of Nature”: Robert Hooke and Early Science’, is at the National Library of Wales’ Hengwrt Gallery until 9 January 2016 New Welsh Review contributor, author Matthew Francis has recorded some of his poems in response to Hooke’s work. New Welsh Review 102 first published two of the poems from this sequence ('Sand', 'Gravel'). Matthew gives a free lunchtime talk tomorrow, Wednesday 4 November at 1.15pm, at the Library on Micrographia’s relevance to the modern reader


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