JF Ptak Science Books Post 1605
Today is the anniversary of a famous bug, found by Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in relay #70 of panel F of Harvard's MARK II computer. It was a 5 cm moth, actually, that was gumming up the works. Hopper--an integral part of several teams working on programming the earliest computers--witnessed the event, recorded the finding of the insect, and coined the word "debugging". She was an important figure in the history of computation, though Dr. Hopper is remembered by the general audience more for the bug than anything else.
The other famous bug, perhaps the most famous in the history of science, belonged to Robert Hooke.
I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about Robert Hooke, and how, if there had somehow and impossibly been no Newton, he might’ve taken Sir Isaac’s place in the popular mind. He was a tireless, relentless observer and experimenter, who lost little effort in a stranded idea and pursued interesting and problematic questions relentlessly. More than others too he chased his won glory—minor but long and insistent—the years of which wore thin on many people in the scientific community. But there were many characteristics of the man that made him not quite so lovable and endearing—not that Newton was any of those things, as he was not, but if you are going to be a secondary luminary to a super nova you’ve got to have something else going for you that the other man doesn’t have—sharing, helpful, greatly generous—to get you into the long pre-dusty pages of history. Also it would’ve helped if Hooke chose his battles with a little more aplomb and ingenuity—the war which began in 1672 with Newton went very badly for Hooke and followed him to the grave (and far beyond).
What I’d like to talk about right now, though, of the many things to talk about concerning Robert Hooke, is the most iconographic image he ever produced, and perhaps one of the most famous scientific images of the 17th century—the flea.
The 28-year old Hooke published the results in a gorgeous and revolutionary book, Micrographia (a lovely e-text edition appears at Gutenberg, here) in 1665, which became an instant best seller and highly praised and valued. (Samuel Pepys, perhaps among the shiniest stars whose imprimatur was like a royal blessing, said the book (was) "the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.") There is no telling what the people of the mid-17th century thought of seeing such incredible discoveries in the little semi-invisible stuff that made up their normal, daily lives. The only thing that somewhat equates to this would be if the first images of the Hubble were those of Earth-bound objects whose detail had previously been unknown. Hooke’s observations and drawings of things like the common flea were just an astonishment—that such a creature of “low order” could have such intricate detail and design was a complete revelation. The drawings of the fly's eye, too, was an inescapable wonder, an incredible object to consider as having any detail pre-microscope, and then revealed to have unimaginable design and elegance.
And so the famous second bug.
…"it is my hope, as well as belief, that these my Labours will be no more comparable to the Productions of many other Natural Philosophers, who are now every where busie about greater things; then my little Objects are to be compar'd to the greater and more beautiful Works of Nature, A Flea, a Mite, a Gnat, to an Horse, an Elephant, or a Lyon.”—Robert Hooke at the end of his 28-page preface to Micrographia (1665)