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John Napier: His Life, His Logs, and His Bones - Biographical Highlights

Michael J. Caulfield (Gannon University)

Sharing some interesting highlights will help bring Napier to life for the students. My students have enjoyed hearing of some of Napier’s famous predictions. For example, he wrote of a future machine that would “clear a field of four miles circumference of all living creatures exceeding a foot in height”, a description calling to mind the feared weapon of the World Wars (and today), the machine gun. He also wrote of a chariot with a “living mouth of mettle” (sic) that would “scatter destruction on all sides”. This is an apt description of the modern tank.

Another incident my students have appreciated is the story of Napier’s dispute with a neighbor over the neighbor’s pigeons. It seems that the birds were eating Napier’s grain. Despite his repeated protests, the neighbor was unable or unwilling to stop the birds from the ongoing thefts. Finally, Napier threatened to impound the creatures. Evidently secure in the knowledge that this would be impossible, since the birds would simply fly off when approached, the neighbor assured Napier that he was welcome to impound the birds – if he could. The next day the neighbor was shocked to see his birds staggering in the field while Napier walked around, plucking them up one by one, and dropping them into a sack. Napier had soaked a batch of peas in brandy and then scattered them in his field. The intoxicated pigeons were easy targets!

It takes relatively little time to share with the class this biographical material and the etymological material that precedes it. The pay off is that it goes a long way toward bringing the material to life, which in turn helps to engage the students in the concepts.

Michael J. Caulfield (Gannon University), "John Napier: His Life, His Logs, and His Bones - Biographical Highlights," Convergence (July 2010)