May 16, 2018

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Historical Footnote, 40 Years Late

Originally published January 15, 2009 LPOD-Jan15-09.jpg
image from

Hundreds of newspapers have picked up the recent story from West Sussex, England that Thomas Harriot made a telescopic sketch of the Moon before Galileo. Many use a variant of the headline, Did a humble Englishman map the Moon before Galileo? And the answer, as has been known for 40 years, is, Yes, he did, but he didn't publish anything and made no impact upon the world of science. None of the news articles I have seen indicate that this is old news, written about in Whitaker's Mapping and Naming the Moon (1999) and extensively described four years earlier on Rice University's famous Galileo Project website; neither of these are obscure specialist publications. According to the Rice website Harriot was indeed a remarkable gentleman scientist, but Galileo immediately understood the scientific importance of his observations of the Moon, phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter. He realized that the Copernican system best fit this new empirical evidence and that the ancient idea that the Moon, like all heavenly bodies, was a pure unblemished surface was wrong. Harriot may have had similar realizations, but unlike Galileo he didn't publish them. What bothers me is that ignorant people publish this as if it is news. Exactly the same thing has happened in press releases from all the new generation of lunar orbiters, from SMART-1 through Chandrayaan-1, as well as from various of the Mars probes of the last decades. Claims are made that these new missions discovered things that actually had been known for 20 years or so. I don't know if its ignorance or calculated mission aggrandizement, but it is widespread.

Chuck Wood

Obstreperous Comment
Here is a mystery for you - how did Harriot make the full Moon map above? It certainly was not compiled from his sketches, which are much poorer. In fact, this apparently later map (probably 1611 according to Whitaker) is what people hold up as being better than Galileo's drawings, when in fact, Harriot's early sketches were, to my eyes, worse. Admission of guilt: I haven't ready any of the specialist publications about Harriot.

Another Comment
The numbers and letters on Harriot's drawing were not keyed to names, but - Whitaker believes - were apparently only meant as positioning guides. The first map with nomenclature was drawn nine years earlier (naked eye) by the scientist WIlliam Gilbert - you can guess his nationality by the name he gave for Mare Crisium: Brittannia.

Yesterday's LPOD: Western Tales

Tomorrow's LPOD: Pi in the Sky


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