Dr. Manuel Varela: Amazing Scientists

Jan 10, 2017 by

An Interview with Dr. Manuel Varela: Amazing Scientists

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1)      Robert Hooke is one of our foundational scientists. Can you provide some broad, global autobiographical information about him (where and when he was born, went to school, and the like ? )

Thank you very much for your interest in amazing scientists and their stories. It is a pleasure to work with you on this project. According to a Small Pocket Diary, which was an autobiographical booklet popular in his day, Robert Hooke wrote that he was born on July 18, 1635 in Freshwater which is a peninsula located in the western end of the Isle of Wight, England. After the death of his father, John Hooke, the 13-year old Robert used his inheritance funds to buy his way out an art apprenticeship in order to enroll in Westminster School. Hooke later attended Christ Church College at Oxford, where became a laboratory assistant to a now famous chemist, Robert Boyle. Hooke subsequently became a professor of geometry at Gresham College where he remained for the rest of his life.

2)      Now , what is he MOST famous for, what would you say are his outstanding contributions to the field of science?

A discovery for which Hooke is most famous for is his coinage of the term “cell” which were tiny enclosed structures that he observed under the microscope when viewing cork slices, and which biologists 175 years later invoked to describe the “cell theory,” that is, that living beings were composed of these tiny cells. Along this line, in 1665 Hooke had published his famous book, called Micrographia, in which he included elegant illustrations of living organisms, primarily plant and entomological in nature. The study of modern cell biology owes its origin to Hooke’s cellular notion.  Today, field of cell biology is a central discipline within the biological sciences.  Additionally, he workings of the living cell is critical for our understanding of many aspects in the biomedical sciences, such as in cancer biology, immunology, physiology, and molecular biology.

3)      As with most scientists, there is some interesting story about his life, and his work. What has been very distinctive about this “father of cell biology”?

One interesting story that is often related to readers in biographical works of Hooke is his famous, or perhaps infamous, feuds with others, such as with the great Isaac Newton, over priority of ideas. The main premise of the feud between Hooke and Newton is grounded basically in who deserved credit for the mathematical discovery of gravitational mechanics associated with the movement of the planets. The feud between these two giants was persistent and became so contentious such that, at one point, an irate Newton, as head of the then Royal Society of London, arranged for the removal of the previous head’s documentation and, sadly, an oil portrait of Hooke from the Society’s building.  Consequently, no image apparently exists of what Hooke actually looked like.

Another controversy arose with respect to who deserved the credit for the discovery of the microbes.

Was it Antony van Leeuwenhoek or Robert Hooke?  When one sorts through all of the arguments one way or another, historians have come to a tentative consensus that it was probably Hooke who may have first observed the bacteria (although he didn’t publish this finding first) and Leeuwenhoek who first discovered the protozoa.  If you hold that the discoverer who gets the credit is the one who published first, then the credit goes to van Leeuwenhoek for having properly published his observations of both types of microbes.

4)      What have I neglected to ask about this famous scientist?

It is interesting to note that Hooke was a renaissance man in the sense that he is known also for having made contributions to many other distinct areas of expertise. For instance, to engineers, Hooke is known for his formulation of the so-called spring theory of how coiled springs contain their elasticity. To surveyors, Hooke was instrumental in helping to design the rebuilding of London after its devastating fire of 1666. To architects, Hooke had been known for his design of a new Royal College of Physicians with its then modern anatomy theatre, in 1670, after the original school had been destroyed during the Great Fire of London. Hooke later designed a large hospital, called Bethlehem or Bedlam, a grand townhouse, and many private homes, few structures of which have apparently survived. One prominent surviving structure is the Monument to the Great Fire, designed in collaboration with architect Christopher Wren. To inventors, Hooke was known to have developed his own designs for improvements to a spring-balanced pocket watch, a barometer and a microscope.  To physicists, Hooke is known for his theories pertaining to optics, such as his light and wave theories, that arose as a result of his work with the microscope and the telescope.

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