Felipe Fernández-Armesto

A Polymath’s Progress

Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science


Oxford University Press 361pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

Few readers, even of Literary Review, will ever match fictional geniuses like Merlin, Mycroft or Marvel’s Iron Man. But Thomas Harriot came close. He was a humbly born Oxford scholar ‘of pregnant parts and quick, inventive brain’, who matriculated in 1577. Courtiers and aristocrats plucked him from obscurity and pensioned him, not only exploiting his brilliance but also giving him freedom to pursue his own work – an enviable gesture of confidence for those of us subject to peer review. Not that his intellectual peers were uneffusive: Nathaniel Torporley detected ‘the splendour of undoubted truth’ in his fellow mathematician. George Chapman said that his ‘depth of soul measures the height’.

Posterity, however, long failed to echo his contemporaries’ admiration, although Harriot anticipated scientific and philosophical breakthroughs usually attributed to Galileo, Leibniz, Newton, Descartes and Malthus. When he died in 1621, almost all his surviving work, rescued from the pile of ‘waste papers’ he ordered to be burned, took the form of thousands of manuscript folios of crabbed notations, often using algebraic and phonetic symbols of the author’s devising. Although one tome on algebra was published in 1631, the task of turning Harriot’s notes into intelligible text was largely beyond his executors. The only piece he published in his lifetime was unrepresentative: his Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was a promotional pamphlet designed to attract investors and settlers to England’s first, doomed American outpost, where Harriot accompanied an abortive attempt at colonisation in 1585. Had Richard Hakluyt, the restless promoter of a vision of English empire, not encouraged its publication, and had a spectacular illustrated edition not followed in Amsterdam, scholars might have overlooked Harriot altogether, and his gifts for mathematics, physics and astronomy might have been forgotten.

Over the last few decades, however, Harriot has attracted enormous and growing attention from historians of science. In consequence, the excellent biography John Shirley brought out in 1983 already seems seriously

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