Micrographia: Or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made With Magnifying Glasses With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon. By Robert Hooke. Originally published 1665. Project Gutenberg (web), Linda Hall Libary (web), Google Books (free), National Library of Medicine (flash web site, Turn the Pages App [free])
Reviewed by Carl Zimmer
In January 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he stayed up till two in the morning reading a best-selling page-turner, a work that he called "the most ingenious book I read in my life." It was not a rousing history of English battles or a proto-bodice ripper. It was filled with images: of fleas, of bark, of the edges of razors.
The book was called Micrographia. It provided the reading public with its first look at the world beyond the naked eye. Its author, Robert Hooke, belonged to a brilliant circle of natural philosophers who--among many other things--were the first in England to make serious use of microscopes as scientific instruments. They were great believers in looking at the natural world for themselves rather than relying on what ancient Greek scholars had claimed. Looking under a microscope at the thousands of facets on an insect's compound eye, they saw things at the nanoscale that Aristotle could not have dreamed of. A razor's edge became a mountain range. In the chambers of a piece of bark, Hooke saw the first evidence of cells.
Hooke gave a lecture to the Royal Society about these investigations, and the members of the Society were so impressed that they urged Hooke to publish a book--a visual argument for the new scientific method.
The allure of the microscopic has not gone away after 347 years. The camera maker Nikon, for example, runs an annual "Small World Competition." What makes it so successful is the drastic--but incomplete--shift in perception that comes when you look through a microscope. The geometries and colors of that small world are similar to the world of the naked-eye, and yet arranged in patterns we never see on our own.
Scientists today produce microscopic images by rigging their microscopes to computers and gathering photons. To create Micrographia, Hooke relied on eyes and brains and hands for his computers--his own, as well as those of his engravers. And that's part of the delight of reading his book today. The images are exquisitely detailed, yet clearly imperfect--the product of minds trained in traditional illustration being forced to make sense of patterns and shapes never seen before.
None of us can quite recapture the experience that Pepys had, of paying a visit to one's bookseller and picking up a freshly-printed copy of Micrographia. I once had the privelege of paging through an original copy at the Yale's Medical School Library, but I certainly wasn't able to take it home and cozy up with it till late at night.
In recent years, Micrographia has taken on a new life on web sites and as an ebook. I have found three digital ways of reading Micrographia, but there may be others I'm not aware of (feel free to leave links to other versions in the comments). None, I should say up front, quite captures the true spirit of the book. Part of the problem is that Micrographia is a massive book, and Hooke printed his most impressive illustrations on fold-out pages. His famous flea, shown above, was the size of a cat. An iPad just can't compete with that grandeur.
That being said, all three are free. The Project Gutenberg version, loaded online in 2005, reproduces the full text of the book online, with links to scans of the images. The scans are clear but lack any of the richness of the originals. The Linda Hall Science Library at the University of Missouri has photographed every page of the book onto a web site. Paging through is awkward, but the quality of the images is far better.
Google offers a pdf you can download to a Google Play app. It has the advantage of providing good reproductions of the artwork and a searchable text. Finally, the National Library of Medicine features Micrographia both online and in their new Turn the Pages App. The app is pretty impressive, especially given that it's free. You can page through the book and tap on icons to read background explanations about Hooke's images. It feels less like reading the book than strolling through a museum exhibit about it, which is no coincidence: that's how the project got its start. The curators have only picked out the most famous images in Micrographia for the app, rather than the whole book. Still, as an introduction to a time when the invisible had only just become visible, it's a pleasure.
Carl Zimmer writes frequently about science for the New York Times and is the author of 13 books, including Evolution: Making Sense of Life.