A Tribute to Robert Hooke

The breaking down of food within our bodies to create energy, the signals sent to our motor neurons from the brain causing our hands to react just in time and catch the baseball, and natural regeneration of skin after receiving a nasty paper cut. All of these phenomena are made possible by amazing things called “cells,” the basic unit of life. And the origin of cells can be traced back to one incredibly thin sheet of cork observed by a brilliant man named Robert Hooke.

As a teacher of 7th grade science, I look forward to this time of year the most. Not because Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks are right around the corner (those are a close second), but because this is the time of year I begin teaching the unit of Biology and it all starts with a scientist named Robert Hooke and his discovery of cells. Admittedly, it is very difficult to get my 7th grade students to appreciate the discoveries of the early scientists. This year, I tried to put myself in Mr. Hooke’s shoes and observe cork under a microscope so I could better teach my students and share with them the joy of my discoveries. Unfortunately, I could not cut the cork thin enough nor did I have the technology to observe the cork close enough to see the cells within the cork. The images in this post are as close my phone could get to tiny pieces of cut cork. Though my experiment was fruitless, I did learn a lot researching Robert Hooke and now have a deep appreciation for the man who coined the term “cell.”

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Robert Hooke came from humble, unassuming beginnings. The son of a churchman on a remote island in Europe, Hooke eventually got accepted to Oxford, a college infamously known for educating brilliant scientists. Later, he was named “Curator of Experiments” by the Royal Society of London. Scientists of every field in science were impressed by his ability to create relevant experiments in every discipline of science. In fact, he was known as a “virtuoso,” which means he was able to contribute accurate scientific findings in any science field. By some, he was viewed as the greatest experimental scientist of his time. To this day, scientists use important discoveries from Robert Hooke in the scientific fields of Biology, Paleontology, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics, Geology, and Architecture.

Surprisingly, my students truly enjoy observing their world up close through a special magnifying lens they can put on the end of their camera phones. There is something universally exciting about seeing our world close up in a way that we normally cannot see. It’s exploration and discovery right in front of our noses. My students could explore this way for hours if I let them. Hooke shared this same enthusiasm. Later in his life, he created a compound microscope with a unique illumination system that let him observe the microscopic world in a way no one else in the world had before. He wrote an influential book titled “Micrographia” which contains detailed descriptions and drawings of his discoveries made with his compound microscope.

Scientists today still use some of his images and observations found within “Micrographia.” One in particular that I teach my students about is his observations of cork. Hooke cut cork into incredibly thin slices and observed them under his microscope. He found that the cork was made of thousands of tiny chambers he later called “cells.” What he didn’t realize, but we now realize, is that he was looking at plant cells within the cork. This was the first documented discovery of cells. Soon after Hooke’s discovery, other scientists (Like Antony van Leeuwenhoek) started to discover microscopic life made of similar tiny cells that Hooke described.

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Sketches of Hooke’s observations of cork cells under a microscope. Picture taken from ucmp.berkeley.edu

Robert Hooke never truly received much recognition for his work across many fields of science. Most of his discoveries were made under the shadow of his more famous colleagues like Sir Isaac Newton. But to me, Hooke is a hero. As a 7th grade science teacher, I need to teach my students multiple disciplines within the sciences, from Biology to Chemistry with some Physics and Earth Science mixed in between. Robert Hooke became a master of all sciences which is something I aspire to be. Hooke also was one of the scientist to start the expansive and inspiring study of microbiology and cellular biology. He didn’t get a lot of recognition back then and even today his name is hardly known, but to me he was an inspiring and influential master of science.

 

THANK YOU for reading! Please comment below and let me know how I am doing to help you see your world through the intriguing lens of science.

 

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