Renaissance Optics between Experiment and Imagination: The Mathematical Practice of Thomas Harriot


ACLS Fellowship Program


Liberal Studies


Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) was an English polymath, whose thousands of extant pages of manuscript reveal an extraordinary mathematical mind. This project examines the large cache of his papers devoted to optics, an ancient science that was about to be transformed in the hands of Kepler, Descartes, and Newton. Harriot anticipated many of these more famous scientists in, for instance, his discovery of the law of refraction and analysis of prismatic colors and the rainbow, and his papers contain the raw account of his day-to-day working with optics and light, both in experimental practice and, to a large extent, through imaginative thought experiments. The study provides a new perspective on both English science and early-modern scientific practice.