Thomas Harriot

A Life in Science

Robyn Arianrhod

Thomas Harriot

A Life in Science

Robyn Arianrhod






15 May 2019




$45.00 AUD

$51.99 NZD

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As Robyn Arianrhod shows in this new biography, the most complete to date, Thomas Harriot was a pioneer in both the figurative and literal sense. Navigational adviser and loyal friend to Sir Walter Ralegh, Harriot--whose life was almost exactly contemporaneous to Shakespeare's--took part in the first expedition to colonize Virginia in 1585. Not only was he responsible for getting Ralegh's ships safely to harbor in the New World, he was also the first European to acquire a working knowledge of an indigenous language from what is today the US, and to record in detail the local people's way of life. In addition to his groundbreaking navigational, linguistic, and ethnological work, Harriot was the first to use a telescope to map the moon's surface, and, independently of Galileo, recorded the behavior of sunspots and discovered the law of free fall. He preceded Newton in his discovery of the properties of the prism and the nature of the rainbow, to name just two more of his unsung "firsts."

Indeed many have argued that Harriot was the best mathematician of his age, and one of the finest experimental scientists of all time. Yet he has remained an elusive figure. He had no close family to pass down records, and few of his letters survive. Most importantly, he never published his scientific discoveries, and not long after his death in 1621 had all but been forgotten. In recent decades, many scholars have been intent on restoring Harriot to his rightful place in scientific history, but Arianrhod's biography is the first to pull him fully into the limelight. She has done it the only way it can be done: through his science. Using Harriot's re-discovered manuscripts, Arianrhod illuminates the full extent of his scientific and cultural achievements, expertly guiding us through what makes them original and important, and the story behind them.

Harriot's papers provide unique insight into the scientific process itself. Though his thinking depended on a more natural, intuitive approach than those who followed him, and who achieved the lasting fame that escaped him, Harriot helped lay the foundations of what in Newton's time would become modern physics. Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science puts a human face to scientific inquiry in the Elizabethan and Jacobean worlds, and at long last gives proper due to the life and times of one of history's most remarkable minds.


Prologue Chapter 1: Harriot's London Chapter 2: Sea Fever Chapter 3: The Science of Sea and Sky Chapter 4: Practical Navigation (and Why the Winds Blow) Chapter 5: America at Last Chapter 6: Preparing for "Virginia" Chapter 7: Roanoke Island Chapter 8: After Roanoke Chapter 9: War, and a New Calendar Chapter 10: New Chances Chapter 11: Setback Chapter 12: Royal Refraction Chapter 13: Spirals and Turmoil Chapter 14: Changing of the Guard Chapter 15: Algebra, Rainbows, and Tragedy Chapter 16: Solving the Rainbows Chapter 17: Conversations with Kepler Chapter 18: Atomic Speculations Chapter 19: Searching the Skies Chapter 20: Gravity Chapter 21: Mathematics, Jamestown, Guiana Chapter 22: The End of an Era Chapter 23: All Things Must Pass Epilogue: Resurrecting Harriot


Robyn Arianrhod , Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University

Robyn Arianrhod is Adjunct Research Fellow at the School of Mathematical Sciences at Monash University. Her previous works include Seduced by Logic and Einstein's Heroes.


"In a largely harmonious meld of biography and science writing, Arianrhod 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... A significant achievement that builds on previous works and takes the next step in establishing Harriot's genius." --Kirkus, *Starred* Review

"Arianrhod's seamless blend of storytelling and science puts Harriot into full historical context. Though he inhabited a world of court intrigues, plague, and political upheaval, Harriot's unflagging intellectual curiosity set him apart then, and makes him more than worthy of respect now, as this fascinating biography amply proves." --Publishers Weekly

"At long last a first-rate biography of Thomas Harriot. Though unknown to many, Harriot's scientific work casts a long shadow, and for 'Harrioteers,' as his fans are known, Robyn Arianrhod's beautifully written and deeply researched book is the one we've been waiting for. A triumph and a must read!" --Jimmy Soni, author of A Mind at Play

"Explorer, navigator, astronomer, linguist, mathematician, and natural scientist, Thomas Harriot was all of these and more. His accomplishments rivaled Galileo and Kepler, but his reluctance to publish doomed him to relative obscurity. With beautiful prose, astute historical understanding, and impeccable mastery of a near-inexhaustible array of fields, Robyn Arianrhod resurrects the life and works of this enigmatic Renaissance man. The world of an Elizabethan sage who was an intimate of the greatest soliders, scholars, and poets of the age springs to life in Arianrhod's pulsating narrative." --Amir Alexander, UCLA, author of Infinitesimal

"Robyn Arianrhod restores Harriot to his rightful place alongside Galileo and Kepler in the pantheon of pioneering early modern scientists and shows how, as one friend put it, he was 'robbed of glory.' Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science is a wonderful combination of biography, history, and popular science that pulses with the spirit of its time." --Jessie Childs, author of God's Traitors