I had one of those wonderful big city moments yesterday, when you are passing through a routinely familiar area, barely logging the surroundings, only to be surprised by something completely unexpected and fascinating. Yesterday’s find was the Robert Hooke Biodiversity Bell (pictured above), newly stationed outside the south gate of St Paul’s Cathedral garden.
It is a beautiful piece of art, but with a rather poignant message: the sculpture is scale model of a much larger bell that will be installed on the isle of Portland (home to the limestone that constitutes both the Hooke Bell’s plinth and the building blocks of St Paul’s itself) and which will be rung every time the extinction of another species is announced. Sadly, the inhabitants of Portland had better be ardent campanologists as we continue to wipe out our fellow creatures at an unprecedented rate.
Robert Hooke gets the honour of having the bell named after him for being an early proponent of biological evolution, although he is probably better known for supporting Christopher Wren in re-designing* London after the Great Fire in 1666. Thus the Bell’s location in the heart of the City.
Almost everything I know about Robert Hooke comes from Neal Stephenson’s historical adventure novel, Quicksilver, in which is portrayed as a brilliant if slightly unhinged innovator – the archetypal mad professor – constantly embroiled in hair-splitting academic altercation with Isaac Newton.
Whether or not this fictional characterisation bears any resemblance to the truth, what is not in doubt is that Hooke was one of the founders of modern science. As a kind of ‘head of experiments’ at the birth of the Royal Society, he pushed the boundaries of everything from telescope and microscope manufacture (I seem to remember Brian Cox enthusing about this in Wonders of the Universe), to physiology, and the respective studies of gases and light. It’s the kind of CV that makes you wonder if the days were just longer in the seventeenth century!
Hooke’s extraordinary life was all about discovering the wonders of the Earth and the universe, and the scientific rules that make them tick. As such, it is fitting that he should be celebrated in the heart of a city at the epicentre** of the Enlightenment, but sad that his will also be a monument to humanity’s destruction of much that he strove to understand and explain.
* North American readers may note that Hook tried, and failed, to introduce the city grid plan to London
** Notwithstanding the pivotal importance of the Midlands towns of the Lunar Society where I grew up – more of which no doubt in a future blog..