Page last updated at 03:12 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

'English Galileo' maps on display

By Christine McGourty
Science correspondent, BBC News

Thomas Harriot's Moon map (Image courtesy of Lord Egremont)
Experts hope the maps will give Thomas Harriot the credit he deserves

"Moon maps" created by a little-known Englishman 400 years ago are to go on display to mark the launch of the International Year of Astronomy.

Experts say they prove their creator - Thomas Harriot - beat Galileo to become the first man to view the Moon through a telescope.

The Italian philosopher is credited with the feat in December 1609.

But papers at the West Sussex Record Office show that Harriot drew images of the Moon several months earlier.

And Dr Allan Chapman, a science historian at Oxford University, said Harriot's composite drawing of the Moon - produced in 1612 or 1613 - marked "the birth of modern cartography".

"Thomas Harriot was not only the first person ever to draw an astronomical body with a telescope on 26 July 1609, he rapidly developed to become an absolutely superb lunar cartographer," he said

"There weren't equivalent lunar drawings to be done for another 30 years.

Sir Patrick Moore on British stargazer Thomas Harriot

"Tragically, no-one knew of it until relatively recent times, so Galileo gets all the credit."

Harriot was a wealthy gentleman with no desire for fame and fortune, unlike Galileo, said Dr Chapman.

"He was comfortably off and had two friends in the Tower of London for political crimes and had no wish to raise his profile.

"Galileo in Italy on the other hand was relatively hard-up, mid-40s and wanted fame and distinction. Galileo goes for publication. Harriot stays nice and quiet; and it wasn't until modern times that Harriott's achievements get noticed."

The first Moon map he drew - on 26 July 1609 - will be on display in Florence, Italy, this summer as part of an exhibition on Galileo.

A selection of other images will go on display at the Science Museum in London from 23 July at an exhibition, Cosmos and Culture, to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy.

IYA 2009 logo (IYA2009)
International Year of Astronomy marks 400 years since Galileo's work

Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore said: "I'm sorry Harriot isn't better known over here... after all, we all know Galileo.

"But Harriot was first... and his map of the Moon is better than Galileo's."

"Looking at Harriot's map, it really is a work of art. He saw the mountains, craters and the so-called seas. It really is a wonderful thing and it's British."

"Harriot was first, no question about it, and his map of the Moon was good. Galileo came after, but went much further.

"Harriot never took things as far as he might have done. We've got to give Galileo pride of place but don't forget Harriot."

The general public can see copies of the priceless originals - privately owned by Lord Egremont - at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester. There will also be a month-long exhibition at the Record Office, from 24 July, featuring Harriot's images of Jupiter's satellites, sunspots and Halley's comet.

A range of events across the UK and internationally are being staged to celebrate the IYA, which is being officially launched in Paris on Thursday.

British astronomers hope that, 400 years on, Harriot will finally get some of the wider recognition that he deserves.

Astronomers in Wales also played a role. Dr Chapman said letters to Harriot from Sir William Lower in Carmarthenshire prove that astronomers there were also making observations on the Moon.

Galileo telescope (Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence)
The early telescopes utterly changed our view of the heavens

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