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Modeling Scientific Practices with Primary Sources: The Art and Science of Robert Hooke

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[Microscope and other scientific apparatus], c. 1665
[Microscope and other scientific apparatus], c. 1665
The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Using primary sources in the science classroom can offer a meaningful historical perspective on the evolution of scientific ideas and reinforce key practices employed by the world’s great scientists. A good example can be seen in the amazingly detailed scientific drawings of Robert Hooke. Inspired by my initial research for an upcoming issue of NSTA’s The Science Teacher, I saw so many opportunities for teachers to explore scientific practices using primary sources.

Although now remembered for his work with microscopes, as a youth Hooke showed promise as an artist and was apprenticed to the leading portrait painter in London. He left the apprenticeship because the painting materials irritated his chest. Later he went on to study science and became the first Curator of Experiments for the British Royal Society. In 1665, he produced his seminal work, Micrographia, a series of illustrations and observations of common objects using a microscope. These were the early days of microscopy, and the book immediately became a sensation. Many people had never before seen “the unseen world” that Hooke was showing them.

Even today, examining the images in Micrographia can be fun and can give students a new perspective, both historically and in context of their own observations.

Cellular structure of cork plant
Cellular structure of cork plant

As students examine Hooke’s images, teachers might suggest two lenses through which to conduct their analysis:

  • What does the illustration tell us about the subject being depicted?
  • What does the illustration tell us about the process of making a good scientific illustrations generally?

For instance, consider the picture to the left,. Present it to students without any additional context, and ask what they observe in this picture. Students may record their answers on the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool. To focus and guide their thinking, select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Photographs and Prints. Invite them to speculate about the little box-like structures – what are they and what purpose might they serve?  Finally, provide the additional context that this is cork observed under a microscope, and consider how knowing that changes both what they see and how they answer the question. Ask them to speculate on why this image, published in 1665, might be significant to the history of scientific thought.

Based on this observation Hooke famously coined the term “cell,” perhaps because they reminded him of monastery cells or honeycomb. At the time, he didn’t know what these cells were for, or how they functioned, but he observed and recorded them — important scientific practices in their own right.

[Microscopic view of blue fly and fly wing at right]
[Microscopic view of blue fly and fly wing at right]
Before examining this illustration of a fly, students could be asked to draw a picture of a fly, either from direct observation or from a photograph. Afterward, they could analyze Hooke’s illustration of a fly – again recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Through reflection, what can students learn about the whole process of scientific observation, documentation and communication by examining Hooke’s drawings. Why was it important for Hooke – who lived in the mid-1600s — to be such a meticulous illustrator?

Let us know in the comments how students adopt these practices for themselves.



Comments (2)

  1. The discovery of the world at the other end of the microscope was as revolutionary (even more so?) as the discovery of the moons of Jupiter by Galileo. A terrific means to examine that crucial moment in the history of science and human understanding of our place in the world.

  2. Thank you for sharing this information.

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