Friday, 13 January 2012

Robert Hooke's authentic wig

In yesterday's news, it was reported that a new portrait of the eminent physicist Robert Hooke FRS was to be unveiled in London's Institute of Physics.

What, you might ask, is unusual about this?  Surely famous physicists - and there really have been some famous physicists - are commemorated in this way all the time aren't they? 

Hooke was one of the greatest experimentalists of the 1600s and was described as "England's Leonardo" and "the greatest mechanic of his age" in an era where the word mechanic was a mark of the greatest possible respect.

In spite of all that, only one portrait of him was produced during his life time.  Even that one was destroyed by fire, in an incident that has often been attributed to the misdeeds of his rival, Isaac Newton.  This means that we have literally no record of his appearance at all, except descriptions in words.  And how easy is it to describe a face in words that convey the facts accurately?  I suggest that it is virtually impossible.

None of this seems to have deterred a commission from the Institute of Physics to paint a portrait.  The inability to guarantee that the portrait's appearance resembles him in any way has not prevented artist, Rita Greer from accepting the task.  However I suppose that there is one feature of this montrous image that might have been authentic.  At least the wig looks as though he might have chosen it at some point in his illustrious carreer.

I'm glad I am no longer a member of the IOP.  What a waste of money that could have been used for something useful - like physics! 

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