Episode 431: There is SOMETHING in a name...

Episode 431: There is SOMETHING in a name...

Ep 431 Dolby

We are going to talk PLENTY about Robert Hooke in the coming episodes, because there is a lot to say about the man and his almost mind-numbingly vast accomplishments. Most of his inventions and ideas were lost through the shoddiness of Royal Society documentation (which Hooke takes part of the blame for, as he was the secretary of the society for a number of years) and through the faddishness of scientific enquiry in general. Luckily we have his diary, which kept an exhaustive account of his thoughts through the 1670s, including:

- The kinetic theory of matter two hundred years ahead of its time.
- A correct interpretation of fossils as extinct species, speculation on vastly reevaluating the age of the Earth, and the germs of evolutionary theory, also two hundred years ahead of their time.
- A device for measuring the depth of the ocean without the need for a really really really really long rope, which had to wait a century and a half before being reinvented.
- A machine that showed mechanically the relationship between frequency and pitch a century ahead of its time.
- The conclusive experiments that a component of air is the essential element that sustains life in breathing, rather than the physical motion of the lungs (they were horrendously grizzly experiments, by the by - such that he only did them a couple of times and then swore off them.... Basically they involved removing the skin around the ribcage of a dog in such a way that the animal stayed alive, and then inserting a bellows into the dog's mouth so that fresh air could be pumped even as they forced the lungs to remain still - the dog stayed alive, which proved it was the chemistry of the air, rather than a physical effect of the mechanical breathing process, which was essential to life.) This then lead to speculations about air composition that anticipate Lavoisier's work a century later.
- A thorough going study of friction and wheel design which arrived at the idea of using bearings to reduce axle friction, also a century ahead of its time.
- The inverse square law for gravity and light.
- Hooke's Law for the relation between spring displacement and the force of that spring, which then extended into further studies of tensile strength of other materials, and to accurate spring based scales, as well as his fundamental work in creating dual-pendulum, spring driven pocketwatches that started the entire British watch industry.
- The discovery of the ideal arch shape in engineering.
- The wave theory of light, and a razor experiment to establish its plausibility that was also a century and a half ahead of its time and which discovered the phenomenon of diffraction.
- The use of screw mechanisms on sextants to radically increase their accuracy in measurement.
- The idea of planetary motion as arising from a universal force that acted centripetally on straight-line motion, which proved a crucial part of Newton's later theory.

And on and on and on. His most admirable trait was his devotion to the mechanical investigation of nature in all of its aspects. He was a firm believer that, by consistent improvement in the devices of measurement, married with a willingness to consider the information coming from the techniques of craftsmen of all walks of life, one could enhance the human senses and probe the secrets of nature to their core. He had no tolerance for metaphysical speculation, and so we find him profitably engaging in scientific speculation steadily throughout the course of his life, something which can not be said of Newton, who wasted a tragic amount of time mucking about in his theological musings. But, then again, Hooke was entirely incapable of sitting down to a single task over a period of years, as Newton was, and so there is a balance between the two men, so alike in finicky temperament, and so entirely unalike in their approaches to the great project of natural philosophy.

- Count Dolby von Luckner

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