THOMAS HARRIOT by Robyn Arianrhod
Kirkus Star


A Life in Science
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In a largely harmonious meld of biography and science writing, Arianrhod (Seduced by Logic: Émilie Du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution, 2012, etc.) furthers the drive to resurrect the reputation of English mathematician Thomas Harriot (1560-1621).

The author, a research fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, writes with the authority of a distinguished professor, placing Harriot's achievements in the context of his era and of the evolution of science. Early on, he worked in navigational theory and was indispensable to ventures to the New World mounted by Sir Walter Raleigh; Harriot was especially adept at interacting with native peoples. Apart from astronomy and optics, he soon branched out into the then-unnamed studies of ethnology, linguistics, and physics, his questing mind and new mathematical approaches in some ways anticipating Galileo, Descartes, Kepler, and even Newton. Sadly, until recently, Harriot's name and contributions, many of them eminently practical, had been all but lost to history, largely because of his failures to publish many of his findings (often for valid reasons). Arianrhod does not attempt “retrofitting Harriot into a celebrity star system,” which she regards as misguided. However, she demonstrates how he was on equal footing with giants, especially in his gift for employing novel approaches to recognizing general patterns and devising solutions. Filling in the gaps of a transitional era with deep background, the author alternates between straight histories and a close examination of Harriot's calculations, experiments, and theories. Although designed for a general audience, readers must be prepared to wade through tables and formulae better grasped by fellow mathematicians. Nonetheless, the richness of biographical and historical detail more than compensates for the effort. The book is almost as much a biography of Raleigh, Harriot's longtime patron and friend, who emerges as a complex but remarkable man, and of Raleigh's formidable wife, Bess.

A significant achievement that builds on previous works and takes the next step in establishing Harriot's genius.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-19-027185-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2019


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