Monday, June 17, 2019

Robyn Arianrhod's "Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science"

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.

Arianrhod applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science, and reported the following:
Page 99 happens to be an illustration – one of only eight in the main narrative, plus a couple of dozen diagrams in the appendix, so it is far from representative. Nevertheless, it gives me a chance to explain how I intend my book to be read.

Thomas Harriot was an extraordinary Elizabethan scientific genius. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re not alone: he never published the scientific and mathematical breakthroughs that should have made him a household name. Discoveries such as the law of falling bodies, which he found independently of his famous Italian contemporary Galileo Galilei, and the law of refraction, which he found twenty years before Dutchman Willebrord Snell – to name just two of his many achievements. He was also one of the best mathematicians of his time.

My goal was to bring Harriot’s colorful life and fascinating work to a non-specialist audience. The book blends history, biography and popular science, and I’ve written it so that it can be read in layers. For example, some readers might choose to focus on Harriot’s dramatic life and times and skim the details of his science. Others will want to go more deeply into the scientific explanations I’ve given in the narrative and in the appendix and notes. Page 99 illustrates these two different ways of reading.

The illustration on this page – like the seven others in the main body of the book – is a facsimile of one of Harriot’s manuscript folios. For those who know some mathematics and who are interested in its history, page 99 is a gem. Harriot was the first to solve geometric problems in terms of a fully symbolic algebra, and this is an example of his method. It predates René Descartes’ 1637 La Géométrie by at least two decades.

On the other hand, for readers who want to focus on Harriot’s life and times, page 99 and the other illustrative pages can be read as just that: illustrations. They show something of Harriot himself – the neat script, the patience required for so many laborious, hand-done calculations, and the laconic style with its unusual reliance on symbols and equations rather than words.

These precious manuscript pages were lost or forgotten for centuries. Their discovery in an ancient castle, and the recent revival of Harriot’s reputation, is a thrilling part of his story. His life and work offer a unique peek into a pivotal time when the modern world, and modern science itself, was just emerging.
Learn more about Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Seduced by Logic.

My Book, The Movie: Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science.

--Marshal Zeringue