Sunday, July 26, 2009

The English Moon

Exactly four hundred years ago, on July 26 1609, the English astronomer Thomas Harriot turned his primitive telescope, a Dutch 'trunke', on the full Moon above Syon House in what is now West London, and made the above sketch. It doesn't look like much, but it's not only the first known sketch of the surface features of the Moon; it's also the first known sketch of astronomical features seen through a telescope - Galileo would begin drawing features on the Moon four months later. Over the next year, Harriot made detailed maps of what he could see of the Moon's geography and helped to usher in a revolution in human thought: heavenly bodies like the Moon were no longer remote lights, but places with local habitations, and names.

He lived a life eminently worthy of novelisation - he was a mathematician who worked for Sir Walter Raleigh, giving tutorials in navigation to Raleigh and his captains, helping to design their ships, and sailing to America on an expedition, where he spent time with the Algonquin Indians. When he returned to England, he worked for Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, popularly known as the Wizard Earl, because of his interest in science and alchemy - he knew the infamous astrologer John Dee, as well as Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. Possibly, Harriot was a member of the 'School of Night' mentioned in Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost. In any event, he helped to tutor the Earl's children in the pleasantly stimulating company of other mathematicians and scientists at Syon House, run by the Earl's cousin, Sir Thomas Percy. Sir Thomas was involved in the Gunpowder Plot; after he and the leader of the plot, Robert Catesby, beseiged at Holbeache House in Warwickshire, were killed by a marksman with a single bullet, Harriot was briefly imprisoned, and the Earl of Northumberland was locked up in the Tower of London for seventeen years. Harriot returned to his studies, making the first observations of sunspots and founding the 'English' school of algebra, but remained obscure because he published little in his lifetime. Unlike the poor and vigorously ambitious Galileo, he enjoyed the leisurely life of an English gentleman, sharing his findings only with his close colleagues and his sponsors. He died in 1621 of skin cancer - some have speculated that it was caused by the tobacco popularised by Raleigh. A crater is named in his honour, on the far side of the Moon, first mapped in the 1960s by machines beyond the wildest dreams of the School of Night.

You can see Thomas Harriot's drawings, and much else, at a new exhibition at the Science Museum, London.


Blogger Adam Roberts Project said...

That first sketch is very interesting, and rather lovely in a spectral, filligree sort of way. I hadn't seen that before -- thanks for posting it. How did Harriot look through a telescope and see the dividing line between light and shadow as horizontal, though?

July 26, 2009 2:31 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

That's a good question, Adam - and I don't know the answer. If Harriot's telescope was like the refracting telescope that Galileo reinvented after hearing rumour of the Dutch version, it would present the image the right way around. Certainly no telescope I know of turns the image clockwise through ninety degrees. Maybe Harriot was lying on his side, on a couch or blanket on the wide lawn of Syon House, under the starry summer sky?

By the way, one of those patches he sketched, second from the top, is the Sea of Tranquility.

July 26, 2009 2:51 pm  
Anonymous Al R said...

I'm wondering if the cartographic convention of north at the top was as established then as it is now? I've seen (as I'm sure we all have) maps of Europe with the east-west axis running from bottom to top, so perhaps it would have been logical to draw the moon with the same orientation?

July 27, 2009 4:27 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

The astrologer/alchemist was John Dee, wasn't he?

July 29, 2009 5:10 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Pete, thanks for the correction - one Thomas too many.

Al, very good point about east being the old north, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century, when compasses and the North Star were routinely used for navigation, I think most maps had north at the top. Of course, there was no convention for astronomical drawings, then - but you'd think he would have drawn what he'd seen. The later, detailed map isn't on its side, but it is a bit cockeyed. As if he'd drawn the Moon from a more southerly latitude...

July 29, 2009 10:52 pm  

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