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(1635–1703) English physicist: ingenious inventor of devices and of ideas then developed by others.

Born in the Isle of Wight, Hooke was intended for the church and went to Oxford as a chorister. However, his poor health was thought to make him unsuited to the church and he turned to science, becoming assistant to in Oxford and making an improved air pump for him. From childhood on, Hooke was an ingenious and expert mechanic. In 1660 he moved to London, and was one of the founders of the Royal Society in 1662. He was made curator; one of his tasks was to demonstrate ‘three or four considerable experiments’ for each weekly meeting. He later added other posts (one of these, as a Surveyor of London after the great fire, made him rich), but the Royal Society work helped to shape Hooke’s life as a prolific experimenter whose ideas were usually fully explored by others. As he was combative, this led to many disputes on priority, notably .

In the 1660s he found Hooke’s Law: this is now often given in the form that, provided the elastic limit is not exceeded, the deformation of a material is proportional to the force applied to it. He did not publish this until 1676 (as a Latin anagram) and in intelligible form not until 1678. Also in the 1660s, he realized that a spiral spring can be used to control the balance-wheel of a timepiece, but made the first working model in 1674. Hooke was fascinated by microscopy and in his book Micrographia (1665) he describes the use of the compound microscope, which he had devised. He used the word ‘cell’ to describe the angular spaces he saw in a thin section of cork, and since then the word has come to be used for the membrane-bounded units of plant and animal life. The book includes also the idea that light might consist of waves; but further work on this was mainly by Huygens. Also in the book is Hooke’s theory of combustion, which is good enough to make it very likely that he would have discovered oxygen if he had continued with chemistry. In the 1660s Hooke had ideas on gravity, as did many others, and he even suggested (in 1679) that its force obeys an inverse square law. These ideas may have been useful to Newton; what is certain is that Newton’s toil and his mathematical genius succeeded in developing the idea brilliantly and that Newton forcefully resisted Hooke’s claims of priority.

Hooke had no rival as a deviser of instruments; the microscope, telescope and barometer were all much improved by him and his other inventions include a revolving drum recorder for pressure and temperature, and a universal joint. His contribution to science is unusual; he did much, but his devices and ideas were largely developed by others. He certainly did more than anyone else to change the Royal Society from a club of virtuosi to a professional body. The frequent comment that he was much disliked seems to have arisen because he quarrelled with Newton. He certainly had many friends and his large library attests to his wide interests. No portrait of him is known to exist.



Scientific societies have played a major part in science. The exchange of ideas within and between societies encourages experiment and the testing of theory; an isolated researcher can too easily become complacent. Some societies were also engaged from their beginning in the organization and funding of science and in the selection of research projects, such as those directed to improving ship design and navigation at sea in the 17th-c.

Usually classed as the first scientific society, the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynxes) was founded in 1609 by the 18-year-old Count Federico Cesi in Rome; so devoted to scientific study that they swore to remain unmarried, the ‘lynxes’ were named for their claimed clear-sightedness. Their membership rose to 32 and included , but the society failed to survive Cesi’s death in 1630.

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge was officially founded in 1660, but its key figures had met in London, and later in Oxford, from about 1645. It was encouraged (but never funded) by the newly-restored King Charles II and its membership included . Independent of the state, it elected its own Fellows, and soon included many gentleman-amateurs, such as Samuel Pepys the diarist. Its only resources were the Fellows’ shilling-a-week subscriptions, often in arrears. The Society appointed a Curator (Hooke), who had to provide a demonstration at each meeting; they acquired some apparatus (such as Boyle’s first air-pump and Newton’s reflecting telescope), bent their minds to anything new or strange (excluding religion and politics), such as blood transfusion or the habits of fish; exchanged research results with societies abroad and published their own in their Philosophical Transactions . To this day the Royal Society retains its seniority in British science, providing the highest-level advice to government, and electing to its fellowship only the most distinguished professional and a few amateur scientists (under 1000 Fellows in all, including about 3% women) in Britain, and a handful working abroad.

The Parisian Académie Royale des Sciences , founded by King Louis XIV in 1666 (after 1816 the Académie des Sciences) was funded by the state for state purposes. Its very select and active membership included . The talented young artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte, elected in 1797, was an active member and later its patron until his power ended in 1814. Academies on the Paris model followed in Berlin (1700), St Petersburg (1725) and Stockholm (1739).

The American Philosophical Society , founded in Philadelphia in 1743, also covered science and was modelled on the Royal Society rather than the European academies, encouraging the amateur enthusiast. It stemmed from Junto, a secret literary and scientific club active from 1727. (It was not the oldest in the USA: that was probably the Boston Philosophical Society, founded by Increase Mather in 1683, but which soon expired.) An early project of the American Philosophical Society was the first accurate measurement of the Earth–Sun distance, by observing the transit of Venus in 1769.

The American Civil War made evident a need for a National Academy of Sciences and this was duly created in 1863. A later conflict, the ‘Cold War’ of the 1950s, generated the National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) in 1957, which, although not a scientific society, has been linked with increasingly dramatic explorations of the solar system and whose scientific effort in support of government intentions recalls in scale the Manhattan Project of the Second World War.

Local scientific societies existed from the 18th-c in Europe and the USA. One such was the Lunar Society , which met in the English Midlands in the 1780s and was so called because its monthly meetings were held on the night of the full moon so it could light members home. These included ; Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95) the industrialist potter; Matthew Boulton (1728–1809), his partner and first manufacturer of steam engines; Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), poet, engineer, medical man and grandfather of ; and William Murdock (1754–1839) the inventor of gas lighting. Local societies such as the Liverpool Astronomical Society (1882), tapped the enthusiasm and expertise of amateurs to good effect, as did the comparable local scientific societies of the USA.

Specialized societies followed the model of the Linnean Society (1788) for botany and the Geological Society of London (1807). The Astronomical and Chemical Societies began in London in the 19th-c, with very many other specialized societies being formed in the USA. Through their publications and meetings they nurture expertise and publicize new discoveries for information and discussion.

The lack of encouragement of women in scientific societies is noteworthy. Before the First World War the poor quality of the education in science available to women excluded all but a very few from senior positions and if they achieved original work in science despite the difficulties, it tended to be eclipsed through their position as someone’s wife, sister, daughter or assistant and subsumed into a male’s publication. After the Second World War the proportion of women graduating in science rose steadily, and membership of scientific societies became more open to them, but a gender bias has remained. At senior levels in university, industry and the learned societies the proportion of women remains low; they have made up about 3% of the Royal Society fellowship for over 25 years. More encouragingly, the US National Academy of Sciences has 4.7% women, and for the last 5 years 10.7% of the newly elected members have been female. In 1991 the embryologist became Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, the first woman to hold an office in its 330-year history.

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almost 7 years ago

Dear Sir,
I am a Senior Res Scientist in Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
I am interested in joining 3-4 scientific societies for which I can be member.

I am involved in Cardiovascular and Immunological work which use various Imaging techniques and also molecular methodologies.

I will be very thankful for your help.

Dr Amit Saxena
617 412 9614