Elizabeth Finkel

Galileo and Kepler went down in history for prising European science from the jaws of medieval mysticism and religion. But where was England’s equivalent? Newton would not make his mark for another century. Surely the free-thinking Elizabethans also had a scientific star?

They did: Thomas Harriot (c.1560–1621). Most of us have never heard of him, for Harriot did not publish his findings. His day job was teaching navigation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship captains. Queen Elizabeth’s favourite was intent on colonising North America for the Crown. But it was also down to Harriot’s personality: retiring, cautious, and meticulous.

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This is a marvellous book. I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, half the writers are friends of mine, including the editor. But the reverse is true. Why should I, immersed in astrophysics, climate change, neutrinos, and deadly bugs as I am, want to spend my precious spare time reading about yet more? And, let’s be quite frank, lots of science writing can be dense, overlong, and, as the wonderfully morose James Thurber once remarked, ‘teaching me more than I ever wanted to know about ferrets’. Well, there are no ferrets in this collection, but just about everything else, from peeing in the pool to watching the space shuttle take off.

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