Image Studies

Image Studies

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Atom-like: Robert Hooke’s Micrographia Crystals



An illustration of crystals from Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665)

A recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time examined the development of the microscope, an instrument that of course revolutionised how we ‘see’ the world at a granular level. The programme’s presenter, Melvyn Bragg, was joined by three notable guests, Jim Bennett (Visiting Keeper at the Science Museum in London), Sir Colin Humphreys (Professor of Materials Science and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge), and Michelle Peckham (Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Leeds), who discussed the early development of the optical microscope in the seventeenth century,  its centrality to scientific enquiry by the nineteenth century, and then  developments of the electron microscopy from the 1930s, which today is one of the most powerful tools of modern science.

The invention of the microscope is varied, but one prominent pioneering scientist was Robert Hooke in England, whose publication Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses : with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665) was the first major publication of the Royal Society, and indeed the first scientific best-seller, gaining the instrument wide public interest. The book is also notable for first coining the biological term cell. However, of particular interest for the study of images, is the suggestion that Hooke drew what we might now call atoms.

A delightful moment in the radio programme, Sir Colin Humphreys produced a book for his fellow guests to see (but which of course the  programme’s listeners could only hear about). In referring to the image shown above, he noted how Hooke’s drawings are suggestive of atoms. While Hooke may not have described them this way, they are drawn. In the same way I discuss in Image Studies (Chapter 7), about how Darwin can be understood to have thought about evolution through the act of drawing, Hooke’s illustration might be said to resolve complex ideas without recourse to words. I’m grateful to say, in correspondence following the radio programme, Sir Colin Humphreys explained the drawings to me as follows:

This is an engraving of 4 crystals of different shapes at the top. Underneath this there are sketches by Hooke of different shaped crystals with spheres inside, showing how different arrangements of spheres can give rise to the crystal shapes. It seems to me that Hooke would not have made these drawings unless he thought the crystals contained such spheres inside them, and he surely must have been thinking that these spheres were atoms.

(You can listen to the full discussion about the history of microscopy on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time).

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