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It’s the first Friday of the month, time for another post on the history of atom theory by physics professor (and my dad) Dean Zollman. Here, we’re in 17th England, and we’re introduced to Thomas Harriot, an explorer with a gift for astronomy, physics, and mathematics. Yet he is little known today.

By Dean Zollman

Dean ZollmanIn 17th century England, science was making important strides in a many areas. Most people might not think of the development of the ideas of atoms has a major area for progress at that time, but progress was made. Further, ideas about atoms influenced other areas and people as well.

As I was thinking about this post, I was trying to decide whether to begin the discussion of this era with Robert Boyle or Isaac Newton. Then I discovered a little known scientist and mathematician, Thomas Harriot (also sometimes spelled Harriott, Hariot, or Heriot). Harriot (ca. 1560-1620) made significant discoveries in exploring the New World, astronomy, optics, and mathematics. He believed in the existence of atoms. As I will discuss, this belief may be the reason for our lack of knowledge about him today.

Thomas Harriot

A portrait believed to be Thomas Harriot by an unknown artist.

Harriot was a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh. When two natives from the (then) New World were brought from the Americas to England, Harriot met with the Native Americans and learned their language. About 1585, he traveled to an island off the North Carolina coast. He was the only person who could communicate with local residents. (English-speaking people haven’t changed much in 430 years.) Thus, he was able to gain knowledge and insights which were published in A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. This report proved very valuable as the English settled in (and exploited) the “new found lands.”

While they were traveling, Raleigh asked Harriot to think about the most efficient way to stack cannon balls on the deck of a ship. Harriot came up with the pyramid shape that was used until cannon balls became obsolete. Today, this stacking method is used in most pirate movies. Harriot later applied this way of packing objects to the way atoms would arrange themselves inside a material.

Upon return from America, Rayleigh introduced Harriot to the Henry Percy, the ninth earl of Northumberland. Apparently, the earl liked to have smart people to hang out with. He put Harriot, and a couple of others, on a salary. Harriot’s primary duties seemed to be to think and talk with Lord Henry.

(The earl later got into trouble because he was a suspected Catholic sympathizer, and his cousin Thomas Percy was involved in the Gunpowder Plot. He spent 17 years in the Tower of London. However, his stay was quite different from most that we think about. Lord Henry had a covered bowling alley built and a library of more than 100 books delivered to him while he was incarcerated. During his time in the Tower, the earl did not lose his wealth. So he continued to support Harriot, and Harriot visited him to discuss scientific matters.)

Harriot Lunar Map

Thomas Harriot’s sketch of the moon, early 17th century.

When Harriot became interested in astronomy, he obtained the newly invented telescope and started looking at the moon. Several months before Galileo published his observations, Harriot sketched the surface of the moon. Those sketches still exist today. However, Harriot never published them, so today Galileo gets the credit.

Harriot’s contributions in mathematics are mostly in algebra. His work on using simplified symbols in algebra, and his theory of equations are considered to be way ahead of others of his time.  This work was published in Latin after his death. However, Artis analyticae praxis contained many editing errors and omissions. A complete and correct translation was not published until the 21st century. As early as 1685, Rene Descartes was accused of plagiarizing Harriot in his discussion of algebra. However, today most historians discount this idea.

Harriot apparently also discovered experimentally the law which describes how light bends when it goes from one transparent medium to another. Twenty years later, Willebrord Snellius published the same idea, so the principle is now known as Snell’s Law. In between Harriot and Snell, Descartes also discovered this principle. However, it was first published in 984 by Ibn Sahl of Baghdad.


Photo by David R. Tribble

The bending of light leads us back to Harriot’s thoughts about atoms. Some of Harriot’s study of light had been motivated by an October 2, 1606, letter from Johannes Kepler. Kepler was having difficulty developing a theory for rainbows and asked Harriot for advice.

A few months later, Harriot sent a letter to Kepler describing the way light bends when it changes media. Different colors bend though different angles and create the rainbow. Then, he goes on to describe, in terms of atoms, why some light is reflected when light enters a new medium and why some of it goes into the new medium. The reflected light has bounced off atoms at the surface, while the bent (refracted) light worked its way through the new substance by moving in the empty space between the atoms.  As it goes through the material, this light bounced off atoms and thus was bent. To “test” this theory, Harriot wrote to Kepler:

“I have now conducted you to the doors of nature’s mansion where her secrets are hidden. If you cannot enter because of their narrowness, then abstract and contract yourself mathematically to an atom and you will easily enter. And after you have come out, you will tell me what wonders you have seen.”

Harriot suggested that Kepler use his imagination and do what today is called a thought experiment. Kepler apparently had a limited imagination because he rejected the idea. (While Kepler was not ready for thought experiments, they have an important role in science. Three hundred years later, Albert Einstein would try to image how the world would look if he rode on a beam of light. That imaginary experiment changed the way we think about space and time.)

With so many accomplishments, Harriot published during his lifetime only the report on Virginia.  Some historians claim that life was just too easy of him. He had an income for life from the earl of Northumberland.  Unlike modern scientists, he never needed to compete for research grants, so he did not need to build a reputation. Others wonder if he was too sickly or too disorganized.

Another hypothesis lies in Harriot’s support of atoms. In the 17th century, the intellectual community did not separate the science of the ancient philosophers from their philosophy. As described by the Greeks, atoms were neither created nor destroyed. Because these atoms were the fundamental constituents of everything, there was no need for Creation; in fact, no need for gods.

For many in the 17th century, a belief in atoms was equated to being an atheist. And atheism was a serious crime. So, perhaps Thomas Harriot did not want to bring attention on himself and his beliefs, particularly related to atoms, by publishing his discoveries and conclusions.

For the past two (maybe three) posts, I have focused on a rather obscure event or person related to the history of atoms. Next time I will try to get back the mainstream, unless of course I get distracted again by a character as interesting as Thomas Harriot.

Postscript for historical novelists: Harriot appears in at least one novel. Harriot, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others were suspected to be members of a secret society that was sometimes called the School of Atheists. In Love’s Labor’s Lost, Shakespeare wrote “Black is the badge of hell,/The hue of dungeons and the school of night.” Much later some people speculated that the “school of night” referred to the Raleigh’s School of Atheists. The School of Night by Louis Bayard takes up this theme. It is set partially in modern day Washington DC and partially in 17th century England after Queen Elizabeth’s death. Thomas Harriot is the central character in the 17th century part of the book. (Another novel with the same title by Alan Ward is set entirely in modern times.)

Images in the public domain or used under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License, via Wikimedia Commons.


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Ancient Greeks Were the First to Hypothesize Atoms

The Poetry of Atoms

Atom Theory in Ancient India

Religion, Science Clashed over Atoms

Medieval Arabic Scholarship Might Have Preserved Scientific Knowledge

Rediscovering a Roman Poet – and Atom Theory – Centuries Later

Reconciling Atom Theory with Religion

Did Atom Theory Play a Role in Galileo’s Trouble with the Inquisition?

Dean Zollman is university distinguished professor of physics at Kansas State University where he has been a faculty member for more than 40 years. During his career he has received three major awards—the National Science Foundation Director’s Award for Distinguished Teacher Scholars (2004), the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Doctoral University Professor of the Year (1996), and American Association of Physics Teachers’ Robert A. Millikan Medal (1995). His present research concentrates on the teaching and learning of physics and on science teacher preparation.