a PAW web exclusive column
Graham Burnett '93: Historian
Exploring history and the history of exploring
David Marcus '92
Photo by: J.
Andrew Hallowell © 2000
Graham Burnett '93 is
a Princeton professor because of a course his father David '66 chose
for him in 1989. That fall, Graham was recovering from viral meningitis,
so his father selected his first-semester courses, including Michael
Mahoney's survey of the Scientific Revolution. Three weeks into
the term, Burnett walked into Mahoney's office and asked how he
might go about becoming a historian of science.
"I was first attracted
by the question of how a European worldview once so dominated by
theology was largely displaced," Burnett says. Referring to
the chaotic nature of early modern science, he added "How did
this mish-mash of mathematics, epistemological musings, and parlor
tricks become such a powerful way of explaining reality?"
Mahoney was impressed,
and he suggested that Burnett perform one of the parlor tricks.
"Take Rene Descartes's description of his lens-grinding machine
and make a model of it, and maybe you'll learn something,"
Mahoney remembers advising Burnett. The model still sits in Mahoney's
office. Burnett wrote his thesis on the topic.
As a Marshall scholar
at Cambridge University, Burnett turned his attention to the history
of exploration. "I think this was a natural extension of my
earlier interest in the relationship between the ërise' of
science and the ëdecline' of certain theological systems,"
Burnett says. "I decided that if I wanted to understand how
science could effect such powerful changes, then the areas of contact
between European scientific explorers and other peoples might serve
as significant places to watch this happen."
The peripatetic scholar
chose his field of inquiry for another reason, he says. "By
this point I had traveled a good deal in India, North Africa, Central
America, and the Caribbean, and I wanted my academic work to connect
to this wider world I was seeing." Burnett earned his Ph.D.
at Cambridge and published his thesis, "Masters of All They
Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado,"
in which he details the efforts of a 19th-century British explorer
to map what became British Guyana.
Burnett's second book
stems from a more personal experience. While living in New York
City, he was selected to be the foreman on a murder trial. The case
lasted two weeks, and the jury deliberated for four days before
finding the accused innocent. "No experience I've had, with
the possible exception of marriage, has drawn so deeply on both
my intellectual and emotional resources," Burnett says. "We
usually think of those realms, wrongly, as fundamentally distinct.
This combination of intense thinking and intense feeling was very
dramatic for me."
forced me to acknowledge the limits of my humanistic training. Humanists
are good at talking, at keeping questions alive and open, but what
the polity asks of a juror is radically different. Yes, a juror
has to think carefully and converse reflectively inquire
into human matters in a community of inquiry, just like a humanist
but then the jury closes the question, answers it, definitively.
This was very hard for me to face." His book about the experience,
"A Trial By Jury," was published in September by Knopf.
The same month, Burnett
began work as an assistant professor in Princeton's history department
and is teaching Science Overseas: Knowledge and Exploration in the
18th and 19th Centuries this fall and precepting The World and the
West. In the spring he'll teach Science in the Modern World. He's
also about to finish the assignment Mahoney gave him 12 years ago:
the erstwhile student hopes to publish a monograph on 17th-century
lens grinding next year.