John Napier to tax modern minds 400 years on

HE IS regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest ever scientists – a brilliant mathematician, physicist and astronomer credited with inventing logarithms, the decimal point and one of the first mechanical calculators.
Dr Tacye Phillipson with a copy of Napiers book Rabdologiae. Picture: Esme AllenDr Tacye Phillipson with a copy of Napiers book Rabdologiae. Picture: Esme Allen
Dr Tacye Phillipson with a copy of Napiers book Rabdologiae. Picture: Esme Allen

Now the first major exhibition to be dedicated to John Napier will reveal the full story behind the enigmatic figure, widely seen as the first Scot to have made a major contribution to scientific learning.

It will explore his upbringing as a member of the nobility in Scotland’s capital, his dropping-out from full-time education and teenage travels around Eur-ope, as well as his deep interest in religion and reputed secret dabblings in alchemy and the occult.

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The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has revealed plans to celebrate the life and legacy of the “Laird of Merchiston” to celebrate a landmark anniversary of a groundbreaking work which paved the way for a host of developments in mathematics, science and engineering.

Schools and workplaces used adaptations of Napier’s logarithmic tables up to the 1970s, when electronic calculators first appeared. The exhibition will chart the history of calculations that Napier is said to have helped inspire over the years and offer a chance to view rarely seen examples of his centuries-old work as it appeared at the time.

A star attraction will be a cannonball found embedded in the 15th-century castle where Napier lived during a period of religious unrest in the city.

Tacye Phillipson, curator of science at the museum, said: “The main inspiration and impetus for the exhibition is that it is exactly 400 years since John Napier of Merchiston published his exceedingly important book, in which he had worked out the principle of logarithms and the principle of putting them into tables of numbers.

“It was a way of simplifying calculations at a time when if you wanted to do a calculation, you had a pen and a piece of paper or slate and pencil and you did them by hand, or employed someone else to do so, which was obviously very slow and subject to so many errors.”

Napier’s new methods allowed people to solve long, laborious arithmetical problems much more quickly and easily. More calculations could be worked out in an hour than had previously been possible in a day. His work was particularly useful in the development of navigation and astronomy.

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His famous mechanical device “Napier’s Bones” was a set of rods – made out of wood or ivory – which were inscribed with multiplication tables, which could also be used to work out square and cube roots.

Napier also wrote extensively about religion, with some of his work vehemently anti-Catholic, having grown up at a time when Scotland was under the rule of Mary, Queen of Scots. He also predicted the apocalypse, based on his studies of the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

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The exhibition explores how Napier, known to admirers as “Marvellous Merchiston,” attracted suspicion in 17th-century Edinburgh – thanks to a long, flowing black cloak, his habit of carrying a black spider around in a box and stories of how he would use his pet black rooster to catch out thieving servants.

Napier was said to have been descended from a family of wizards and his reputed magic powers even led to him being hired to try to track down hidden treasure in the Borders.

Ms Phillipson added: “We now divide astronomy very strictly from astrology, and chemistry from alchemy. As a man of those times, he believed if you were interested in exploring the world, you were interested in exploring every avenue possible.

“A number of stories about Napier were particularly collated in 1834 by one of his descendants, the sort of which could get a man a reputation for magic. But there weren’t the same dividing lines at the time between religion and the supernatural and he was interested in absolutely everything.”

• The John Napier exhibition, Power of Ten, runs from 28 March to 6 July.