For some months, I’ve craved a copy of Micrographia*. This week, I finally got my hands on a copy of Robert Hooke’s famous work. So far I’ve barely dipped into the volume, but over the handful of pages I’ve looked at I’ve come to a ready appreciation for why the book is such a classic.
Its full title is “Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of MINUTE BODIES made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon”, which reveals perhaps the first cute thing about the book. The style of the time appears to have been never to use one word where fifteen would do. Punctuation, spelling, and capitalization and italicis are liberally sprinkled throughout the text. It makes for a challenging read, especially when one encounters the infamous elongated s – it looks like an f without the crossbar in the normal font, but in italics which are liberally sprinkled THROUGHOUT the book, it has an additional tail. It looks as if someone took a regular s, thinned and stretched it. Pairs (“ss”) often have the first character in this elongated format and the second in its shorter form; in italics they together look like B, but with a tail. I would call this “beta”, but a German might know it as “Eszett”. In modern German, that is its own character representing the sharp “s” sound. Now I understand something more of international language and its history.
Combining these odd s characters with italic typesetting and judicious spelling results in the word “show” appearing as “fbew”. It took me a while to work this one out.
But yes, okay. It’s a picture book – in the sense that it’s a book where the pictures are the main feature. The etched copperplate reproductions of the author’s drawings of features under the microscope are truly beautiful. My copy (Library of Congress 62-73, c. 1961) has a magnificent foldout of the famous diagram of a flea. But any book could just show pictures – what makes this volume special is the annotations and observations written by Hooke at the time. They reveal both a curious mind, a humble(d) man, and a person of great interest for details.
My favourite passage so far is in Hooke’s observation of frost on the surface of a “Veffel of Urine”. I’m not entirely sure whether Hooke means literally human urine, or whether “urine” here refers simply to some type of dirty water. Either way, he observes the multi-branched and ever so almost regular patterns in the frost. Along the way, he points out all of the irregularities in the formation and even goes so far as to describe the ordering in which the branches of ice interleave. Then, in one of my favourite descriptions of urine ever, he says:
The exactness and curiosity of the figuration of these branches, was in every particular so transcendent, that I judge it almost impossible for human art to imitate.
The discussion then turns to how the structure seems similar to the fractal-esque nature of fern leaves, and I realize that this is perhaps the first coherent (recorded) discussion of the universality of fractals – albeit without either of those words existing yet.
Finally, I leave you with my favourite part of the preface, which of course will be familiar to any scientist who has had a great idea in the shower, and forgotten to write it down:
… ’tis no wonder, that our power over natural causes and effects is so slowly improv’d, seeing we are not only to contend with the obscurity and difficulty of the things whereon we work and think, but even the forces of our own minds conspire to betray us.