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Galileo versus Harriot as telescopic observers of the moon

Press clipping: Research

Publication date20/01/09

In this four hundredth anniversary year of the telescope there has recently been jingoistic discussion about who was the better observer and mapper of the moon, the Englishman Thomas Harriot (who was first) or the Italian Galileo Galilei (who did more). In an article to be published in Notes and Records of the Royal Society (issue 2, 2009) to mark Harriot's observations of July 1609, Stephen Pumfrey of the Department of History argues that the debaters have missed the point. Harriot and Galileo had different research agendas. Galileo's was topographic, and designed to prove that the moon had earthlike mountains and valleys. Harriot's was cartographic, and intended to show what he thought were coastlines. But why was Harriot interested in coastlines? Pumfrey presents evidence that Harriot had seen a pre-telescopic map of the moon, together with manuscript instructions which may have led him to an unexpected discovery about the moon's orbit. Exactly what that discovery was is discussed in his forthcoming NRRS article.