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Thomas Harriot: the most pioneering scientist you've never heard of. 
16th-Jan-2009 05:02 pm
earth, hhgttg
Galileo, in the words of theyorkshergobJennie Rigg, was a filthy credit stealer, which of course, he was - unless you take the view that intention matters, of course. You see, while the Tuscan is known as the Father of Astronomy due to his work using the newly invented telescope, it was an Englishman, Thomas Harriot, who made the first high quality sketches of the moon using a telescope.

In having the superior fame and credit for work another man was doing at the same time, Galileo has something else in common with Charles Darwin, whose results were presented to the Linnean Society as On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Species to form Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection, a joint paper with Alfred Russel Wallace.

Two major questions may or may not be presenting themselves at this point: why do Galileo and Darwin get such major credit and fame over two relative unknowns? And what prompted these discoveries to be made so nearly concordant with each other?

The State of Science

The second question is relatively easy to answer with respect to Harriot, at least. This was, of course, the climax of the Scientific Renaissance, and society was going through one of those periodic times in which science is trendy. Men such as Galileo and Harriot were able to dedicate their lives to research, in Galileo's case as a pure academic teaching at the University of Padua, and for Harriot at first in the employ of sailor and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who had use of him as a cartographer and an expert in the navigational sciences. In this job, Harriot wrote his only published book: A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, and did a great deal of work on gunnery: he came very close to inventing Vector Analysis while doing so. 

It was also apparently (my knowledge of the History of Science at this time is sadly lacking)  fashionable at the time for English nobility to offer patronage to scientists so they could pursue science for the sake of science, and so after leaving Raleigh, Harriot was offered such a situation by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. There he worked on optics: he discovered Snell's Law of Refraction in 1601 - twenty years before Snell himself, and corresponded with Johannes Kepler, allegedly influencing the Kepler conjecture.

Along with this Europe-wide love of discovery and exploration, the telescope was invented in 1608, probably by Hans Lippershey, so it would be only natural that two men as scientifically minded as Galileo and Harriot  - the latter having had his interest in Astronomy piqued by Halley's comet in 1607  - would each acquire one, and with them investigate what they could.

Two hundred years later there was another rise in the love and public interest in science, particularly in this case of biological science. It became common practice for educated men to go on voyages of discovery to observe and learn more about the natural world, and to talk with other educated men about their ideas. A decade after a young Charles Darwin paid his way as a ship's naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, Alfred Russel Wallace began a series of voyages to similarly explore South America and Indonesia.

The scientific community at the time was going through a revolution as it started to challenge the class and gender barriers keeping scholars out, and in particular the Church was beginning to lose some of its sway. The discovery of dinosaurs made palaeontology and geology particularly sexy, and Evolution, in its pre-Natural Selection form, was becoming quite the talking point. With Lyell's uniformitarianism it was accepted the Earth was old, and with Owen's Dinosauria, it was known that fauna had changed in that long history. Darwin and Wallace's contribution was to provide a mechanism for this hot topic, influenced in each man's case by consideration of the ideas put forward by Thomas Maltheus in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Simply put: human populations increase exponentially unless there are checks in growth, and the nature of these checks will influence the population. Apply that to biologically inheriting natural populations, and you have Natural Selection.

It's not coincidence that these discoveries occurred in simultaneous pairs; and it's happened since, with the double helix model for DNA structure. Sometimes the state of the scientific community works with new ideas, inventions and philosophies to create the perfect environment for breakthrough discoveries. There are coincidences involved, but they're more in the lives of the men leading up to their discovery than simply having random ideas occurring simultaneously.

Missing out on Fame

So why, then, are these breakthroughs attributed to Galileo and Darwin and not Harriot or Wallace? It's clearly not as simple as the case around poor Rosalind Franklin, denied notoriety by the Nobel Prize's rules against posthumous nominations. Instead it's more that Harriot and Wallace, when each is compared to Darwin and Galileo, had noticeable differences in situation and background, that let their work go relatively unnoticed.

Darwin and Wallace's primary difference was that of class: Wallace came from a working class background and had to support himself and his family through his studies. Darwin was middle class, educated at Edinburgh and Cambridge and sent with his father's money to study. He came from a wealthy family and was able to spend twenty years living in Downe House working out all the kinks in his theory and writing a book, On the Origin of Species, the 150th anniversary of which forms part of Darwin200, and which is the primary reason Darwin is so famous; the idea is one thing,but the superlative explanation of the idea published only when Wallace appeared likely to publish first, is the most important part of Darwin's background. Throughout his life, Darwin was very much a member, albeit an elusive one, of the academic elite of the British scientific community, and Wallace had to prove himself through his own work. Although admittedly it doesn't help that Wallace was also highly political and later became a Spiritualist. History might forgive Arthur Conan Doyle for such silliness, but it wouldn't if someone else had written Sherlock Holmes.

While probably not working class, Harriot came from what is perhaps a relatively similar disadvantaged background. Local to Oxford, he enrolled in the University in 1577, and his matriculation documents record his father's background as that of 'commoner'. But the most striking difference between him and Galileo is one of country: As an academic in an Italian university, Galileo lived in a community of scholars who could appreciate science for the sake of science. Harriot's life was bogged by politics and the religious struggles in England.

In the 1590s, Harriot's employer Walter Raleigh was loudly accused of atheism, and his association with Harriot's scientific work was implicated. When Queen Elizabeth died and James came to the throne, loyalties shifted and association with Raleigh became even more troublesome, though as it turned out, nowhere near as troublesome as Northumberland's patronage. The Earl's second cousin, Thomas Percy was one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, and in the aftermath, both Northumberland and Harriot were arrested, though the scientist was soon released.

So Harriot found himself working on potentially dangerous ideas in a very volatile political environment.Galileo was convicted of heresy and faced censorship and house arrest; if Harriot had angered the monarch and convicted of heresy, he would have faced the death penalty. After two large scares, it doesn't surprise me he kept his head down and lost himself in his science for the sake of science, never publishing his findings and leaving very little legacy despite the scale of the discoveries he made.

Galileo and Darwin both existed in large scientific communities and were singled out for attack by organised religion because the ideas they represented posed a threat and symbolised the apparent threat science itself was posing to the organisations at the top of the hierarchy. Galileo was himself vocal and ready for an argument, and Darwin's friends (especially Thomas Henry Huxley) were ready to argue his ideas for him. As outsiders to the community at large, Harriot and Wallace were not publicised either as heroes by their fellow scientists nor as heretics to their opponents, and so were sadly forgotten.

Although, some historians love an underdog, so I'm sure they become completely obscure for some time yet.


Thomas Harriot on Wikipedia
Thomas Harriot at the Galileo Project
Thomas Harriot biography hosted at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrew's

Telescope400- an event being held at Syon Park to mark Harriot's first lunar sketches
16th-Jan-2009 05:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting about this! I find all the scientific gossip/history/backstory consistently fascinating.
(Deleted comment)
16th-Jan-2009 11:41 pm (UTC)
Let's get the currently queued one posted first, shall we?
17th-Jan-2009 01:34 am (UTC)
Excellent post, IB!

I knew about Wallace, but not the details of his story, and Harriot is completely new to me. Great stuff.
17th-Jan-2009 04:08 am (UTC)
Ya learn something new every day - not that this is in any way a bad thing. It kind of makes me wonder if, in the future, the powers that be reevaluate what it is that people are taught in school - or if it just continues to further get dumbed down. my bet, at least for Americans, is the latter, sadly.
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