It was Robert Hooke's misfortune to live in an age aflame with scientific discovery. Isaac Newton was working on gravity and ellipses, Robert Boyle on experiments with vacuums and air, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek on microscopes, Christopher Wren on new ways of building; and there was Hooke, so surrounded by giants that his own genius barely showed. When Boyle displayed his new air pump, Hooke worked the apparatus for him like a lowly lab assistant. When Wren redesigned London after the Great Fire of 1666, Hooke was the man who took on the vast, unglamorous task of measuring the plots and arranging compensation.
Although he was often the first to grasp new truths or to invent new mechanisms, the louder and more celebrated scientists took the credit. Constantijn Huygens beat him down over balance-spring watches, and Newton refused to acknowledge that Hooke's wave-theory of light predated his own suppositions. Hooke found it hard to argue back, knowing himself tongue-tied in the new, glittering language of mathematics. Almost all he is remembered for today is his law of elasticity, that pleasingly simple formula of springs and weights that still persuades non-scientists, for a while, that they may be able to do physics.
Hooke has enjoyed more sympathy in recent years, and has always been remembered with respect at Westminster School, where the great Richard Busby took him in more or less as a foundling and gave him his start in science. But Lisa Jardine, fresh from writing her biography of Wren, thinks that his lowlier colleague deserves proper admiration. Her book establishes Hooke as a first-rate artist and instrument-maker, a meticulous observer of nature and a very good designer of buildings. It also makes clear why he failed to shine: he was always doing too much.
Hooke was, in fact, a born subordinate. As a minister's son from the Isle of Wight, reliant on the patronage of those richer and better-connected, he made himself useful at first out of deference and gratitude. Though his mind was as good as any other in the fledgling Royal Society, he was also the society's factotum and dogsbody: the Curator of Experiments, the keeper of its repository of scientific curiosities, and for a while its secretary. Wren, too, used him that way, as the deputy who trudged the streets with a measuring rod while Wren, hobnobbing with the king, did the showy stuff. All Hooke's jobs ran simultaneously, but his colleagues seemed not to notice that. When he failed to get experiments ready on time for Royal Society lectures, members coldly rebuked him.
His character remains confusing. Lisa Jardine thinks he was unprepossessing and difficult; he lived the self-obsessed life of a bachelor, relieved only by tumbles with his live-in maids, and dosed himself almost daily with "sal ammoniac" (ammo-nium chloride) and "poppy water". On the other hand, he was gregarious, constantly out for coffee and a smoke at Jonathan's or Garraway's, and many wits of the day - including John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys - seemed to enjoy his company. Ultimately, we cannot really grasp who the man was, and the existing, lizard-like portrait is not much help, either; for this may not be Hooke at all, although Jardine makes a fairly strong case for it.
His elusiveness may owe something to the structure of this book. It is arranged more by themes than chronology, and the private life is tucked at the end rather than informing our view of the man as we read through. And though this is a good, thorough, sympathetic biography, it lacks two things: a feel for the age - the colour and smell and mood of it - and a sense of the excitement of scientific discovery. So we are given the rules for surveying after the fire, but no sense of Hooke labouring in the rubble; many Royal Society memoranda, but no impression of what it was like to watch one of Hooke's experiments; a walk-on part for Charles II, dangling one of Hooke's watches, but no glimpse of court life; a debate with Dutch scientists over Hooke's Micrographia, but remarkably little about the work itself or the thrill of seeing, for the first time, the barbs of a nettle-leaf under the microscope. Jardine may have preferred to rely on the many engravings that are scattered through the text. These are fascinating, but an engraving of a coffee house is no substitute for painting, in words, the atmosphere inside.
None the less, Hooke has a doughty champion here. Jardine would probably have liked to call him a genius; but her academic rigour won't let her. Genius needs focus and obsessive concentration, and Hooke was allowed time for neither. And perhaps, even granted time, he could not have focused for long, either. In the end, his own health was his chief preoccupation. Two images are strik-ing: near the end of Hooke's life, essaying cannabis with a friend who wrote: "This Powder being chewed and swallowed, or washed down, by a small Cup of Water, doth, in a short Time, quite take away the Memory and Understanding"; and Hooke inspecting, through a magnifying lens, the gravel in his own urine, watching with fascination the way it clung to the porcelain.
Ann Wroe's most recent book is Perkin: a story of deception (Jonathan Cape)