Seventeenth-century scientific sensation on the BBC

Dean of Trinity, Professor Sachiko Kusukawa, discusses Robert Hooke’s unusual combination of skills on The One Show.

Dean of Trinity, Professor Sachiko Kusukawa
Dean of Trinity, Professor Sachiko Kusukawa

Hooke’s intricate pictures of the human and natural world up close – including fleas, a fly’s eyes, fish scales and a razor blade – caused a sensation in seventeenth-century England, when microscopes were new-fangled instruments and drawing was the only way to show what they pictured.

When the Royal Society published Hooke’s Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses in 1665, it became a bestseller and the world’s first popular science book.

Professor Kusukawa, Fellow in the History and Philosophy of Science at Trinity, said Hooke was a fascinating character who made his readers ‘see the world in a completely different way.’

Hooke was not only a scientific pioneer but an unusually talented artist. He had been apprenticed to Peter Lely who became King Charles II’s principal painter. The way he laid out his book, with foldout pages of huge fly eyes, and intricate drawings of the imperfections of man-made objects was very clever.

She explained to the BBC’s Phil Tufnell how Hooke created his remarkably accurate drawings of tiny insects :

A lot of work had to go in, jiggling the microscope, the light source and then, bit by bit, creating parts of an image. This was months of intense work. Not many people in the period had this combination of skills and that is what makes this particular book really unique.

Professor Kusukawa researches how scientific knowledge was described and disseminated in the early modern period. She is leading the AHRC-funded, ‘Making Visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society’.

Founded in the 1660s, the Royal Society is one of the world’s oldest institutions dedicated to the collective investigation of nature. Understanding how the Society presented this new kind of knowledge and the role of the institution in the emergence of a scientific visual culture, are key aims of this multi-disciplinary project.

Watch The One Show report about Robert Hooke (15.49)

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