George Best - An Elizabethan Climate Scientist
    By Patrick Lockerby | February 26th 2011 09:50 AM | 18 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    George Best - An Elizabethan Climate Scientist

    whosoeuer could finde out in what proportion the Angle of the Sunne beames heateth, and what encrease the Sunnes continuance doeth adde thereunto, it might expresly be set downe, what force of heat and cold is in all regions.
    George Best, written between 1578 and 1584.

    Image courtesy NASA:

    George Best was an Elizabethan scientist, explorer and adventurer.  He was the chronicler of the three expeditions in search of a North West Passage led by Martin_Frobisher.  He sailed on all three expeditions.   He was a Lieutenant on the Ayde (2nd expedition) and Captain of the Anne Francis (3rd expedition).

    Best died in a duel in 1584.  As a member of all three Frobisher expeditions he would likely have been born between 1530 and 1540 in order to be old enough to be an officer, but young enough to endure the hardships of an Arctic voyage.

    George Best's contribution to climate science - the Best Effect

    reason perswadeth, the hotest place in the world to bee vnder and about the two Tropikes;
    It is common sense that the tropics are hot and the poles are cold.  But Best showed that what 'reason persuadeth' is false: the polar regions in their respective summers receive more insolation than the tropics!

    It appears to me from my researches that Best was the first person to record the mechanism which leads to the poles having a greater total heat input in summer than do the tropics.  I propose that this 'polar tropical heating' effect of polar summers should be named the Best effect in his honor.

    The climate zones

    According to a long-held view of how the Earth warms, most Elizabethans - never having traveled to check their 'facts' -  held that equatorial regions were too hot to support life.  The prevailing view of climate, from Ancient Greek authority, held that there were five climate zones, only two of which were inhabitable.  George Best refuted this notion in his "experiences and reasons of the sphere, to prove all parts of the world habitable, and thereby to confute the position of the five zones".

    Quodque die solis violento incanduit aestu,
    Humida nox reficit, paribusque refrigerat horis.

    Pontus Heuterus (1535 - 1602)1

    If the heate of the Sunne in the day time doe burne or parch any thing,
    the moysture of the night doeth coole and refresh the same againe, the Sunne
    being as long absent in the night, as it was present in the day.

    Translation and explanation by George Best
    Best expands on this observation of Pontus Heuterus and shows in his writings a clear grasp of the way that the atmosphere modifies the extremes of day-night temperature that would occur without it.  Although he makes reference to moisture, it is not clear that he understood the importance of water vapor as such.  The references to moisture seemingly apply to the cooling of the atmosphere in the absence of the sun.

    Best makes clear in his writings, long before scientists like John Tyndall, that the heat of the tropics has nothing to do with the difference in distance to the sun, citing the coldness of mountain tops in Africa as proof that nearness to the sun is irrelevant.

    The 'tropical poles' effect

    Best noted a key fact of climate science: the amount of heat accumulated in a climate zone depends greatly on the angle of the sun's rays and the number of hours of daylight.  This simple fact was deduced from the fact that the Earth is round.  It is clear from this and other observations in the writings of George Best that the Elizabethans most definitely did not think that the Earth was flat.

    In the “summer hemisphere,” the combination of more direct sunlight and longer days means the pole can receive more incoming sunlight than the tropics, but in the winter hemisphere, it gets none.
    Image and text source:

    In his writings on the summer Arctic heat input, George Best suggests that the ice which caused problems for the Frobisher expeditions can be taken as a proof of the immense quantities of heat which the Arctic receives in summer.

    ... those infinite Islands of ice were ingendred and congealed in time of Winter, and now by the great heat of Summer were thawed, and then by ebs, flouds, winds, and currents, were driuen to and fro, and troubled the fleet; so that this is an argument to proue the heat in Summer there to be great, that was able to thaw so monstrous mountaines of ice.
    It is clear that Best broadly understood that sea ice advance in winter and retreat in summer is only possible due to the great heat input during polar summers and the loss of that heat during polar winters.

    For a long time the advance and retreat of Arctic sea ice was variable from year to year but with no obvious long term trend.

    It is only since the industrial era that a long term trend of ice loss has become apparent.

    Given that atmospheric CO2 levels have risen greatly since the time of George Best, it is unsurprising that the tropical heat of Arctic summers is increasing and is not being entirely released to space during Arctic winters.

    The full text of George Best's chronicles is available from Project Gutenberg:
    Richard Hakluyt:
    The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (Volume XII: America, Part I)

    For the convenience of my readers, some key passages of most relevance to this article are reproduced below.

    A true discourse of the three Voyages of discouerie, for the finding of a  passage to Cathaya, by the Northwest, vnder the conduct of Martin  Frobisher Generall: Before which as a necessary Preface is prefixed a  twofolde discourse, conteining certaine reasons to proue all partes of  the World habitable.
    Penned by Master George Best, a Gentleman employed  in the same voyages.

    ... because it hath bene accompted of the olde Philosophers, that there coulde nothing prosper for the extreme heat of the Sunne continually going ouer their heades in the Zodiacke, I thought good here to alleadge such naturall causes as to me seeme very substantiall and sure reasons.

    Heat is caused by two meanes that is by his maner of Angle and by his continuance.

    First you are to vnderstand that the Sunne doeth worke his more or lesse heat in these lower parts by two meanes, the one is by the kinde of Angle that the Sunne beames doe make with the earth, as in all Torrida Zona it maketh perpendicularly right Angles in some place or other at noone, and towards the two Poles very oblique and vneuen Angles. And the other meane is the longer or shorter continuance of the Sunne aboue the Horizon. So that wheresoeuer these two causes do most concurre, there is most excesse of heat: and when the one is wanting, the rigor of the heat is lesse. For though the Sunne beames do beat perpendicularly vpon any region subiect vnto it, if it hath no continuance or abode aboue the Horizon, to worke his operation in, there can no hote effect proceed. For nothing can be done in a moment.

    And this second cause mora Solis supra Horizontem, the time of the sunnes abiding aboue the Horizon, the old Philosophers neuer remembred, but regarded onely the maner of Angles that the Sunne beames made with the Horizon, which if they were equall and right, the heat was the greater, as in Torrida Zona: if they were vnequall and oblique, the heat was the lesse, as towards both Poles, which reason is very good and substantiall: for the perpendicular beames reflect and reuerberate in themselues, so that the heat is doubled, euery beame striking twice, and by vniting are multiplied, and continue strong in forme of a Columne. But in our latitude of 50. and 60. degrees, the Sunne beames descend oblique and slanting wise, and so strike but once and depart, and therefore our heat is the lesse for any effect that the Angle of the Sunne beames make. Yet because wee haue a longer continuance of the Sunnes presence aboue our Horizon then they haue vnder the Equinoctial; by this continuance the heat is increased, for it shineth to vs 16. or 18. houres sometime, when it continueth with them but twelue houres alwayes.
    Therefore, whosoeuer could finde out in what proportion the Angle of the Sunne beames heateth, and what encrease the Sunnes continuance doeth adde thereunto, it might expresly be set downe, what force of heat and cold is in all regions.

    But the Sunne is thought to giue no otherwise heat, but by way of Angle in reflection, and not by his neerenesse to the earth: for throughout all Africa, yea in the middest of the middle Zone, and in all other places vpon the tops of mountaines there lyeth continuall snow, which is nearer to the Orbe of the sunne, then the people are in the valley, by so much as the height of these moantaines amount vnto, and yet the Sunne notwithstanding his neerenesse, can not the melt snow for want of conuenient place of reflections. Also the middle region of the aire where all the haile, frost, and snow is engendred, is neerer vnto the Sunne then the earth is, and yet there continueth perpetuall cold, because there is nothing that the Sunne beames may reflect against, whereby appeareth that the neerenesse of the body of the Sunne worketh nothing.


    [1] - Pontus Heuterus ( 1535 - 1602 )

    Alternative names:  Pontus de Heuter or Huyter, sometimes mis-spelled as Henter or Henterus.  

    Pontus Heuterus was born in Delft in 1535 and ordained as a priest in the same city.  He was captured in Gorinchem by the Geuzen in 1572 but escaped and fled to the Southern Netherlands.  He was a canon at Deventer from 1585 till 1591.  He died in St. Truyden, 1602.

    Writings of Heuterus:
    Dutch orthography: Nederduytsche orthographie (Antwerp 1581).
    Belgian History: Rerum Belgicarum libri quindecim
    History of the Low Countries until 1565.
    History of Burgundy, Rerum Burgundicarum libri sex, in quibus describuntur res gestae regum, ducum, comitumque utriusque Burgundiae (Antwerp 1583)


    Weel dunne, Patrick! Do yov know if George Best made (or recorded) any direct Solar obseruations during his three Arctic uoyages? Great to have yov back!

    Thanks, Lodger.

    The only observations of the sun made during the three expeditions were for the purpose of navigation, using the staff to determine latitude from the sun's height above the horizon.

    It is worth noting in passing that George Best's notion of 'tropical' heat input into the Arctic in summer - the Best effect - was 'fringe science' in his day and was not supported by his contemporaries.

    I cannot iudge that any temperature vnder the Pole, the time of the Sunnes Northerne declination being halfe a yere together, and one whole day, (considering that the Sunnes eleuation surmounteth not 23. degrees and 30. minuts) can haue power to dissolue such monstrous and huge yce, comparable to great mountaines, except by some other force, as by swift currents and tides, with the hope of the said day of halfe a yeere.

    Master Dionise Settle, 2nd Frobisher expedition, 1577.
    Simple observations, profound conclusions. It always amazes me how historical natural philosophers could make profound discoveries will little data, and then build upon that so well. We like to think ourselves so smart and consider the Medieval period so scientifically retarded, but George Best so well dispalys their ability to think.

    Thank you Patrick

    Thank you, Tony.

    The adventurers of the Elizabethan era were the sort of philosophers who would speculate about ocean and climate mechanisms and then sail off to test their theories. Now that's what I call science!

    Another Elizabethan - Sir Humphrey Gilbert - made some astute observations about the strong Atlantic currents which had been observed by various expeditions.  He considered those discontinuous observations and deduced the necessary continuity of a single current to the far north.  We now know it as the Gulf Stream.

    It may (peraduenture) bee thought that this course of the sea doth sometime surcease, and thereby impugne this principle, because it is not discerned all along the coast of America, in such sort as Iaques Cartier found it: Wherevnto I answere this: that albeit, in euery part of the Coast of America, or elswhere this current is not sensibly perceuied, yet it hath euermore such like motion, either in the vppermost or nethermost part of the sea; as it may be proued true, if ye sinke a sayle by a couple of ropes, neere the ground, fastening to the nethermost corners two gunne chambers or other weights: by the driuing whereof you shall plainely perceiue, the course of the water, and current running with such course in the bottome.

    A discourse written by Sir Humphrey Gilbert Knight, to proue a passage
      by the Northwest to Cathaia, and the East Indies.

    That insolation diagram is wonderful, Patrick.  I’ve often wondered how to calculate it, especially since the ‘negative’ values when the Sun is below the horizon would have to be converted to zero, making it a difficult function to handle analytically.

    One thing I’ve just noticed is that it’s not symmetrical north and south, which at a first guess I would say is due to the ellipticity of the Earth’s orbit.

    To illustrate the five zones, this is from a 12th century manuscript of Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis by Macrobius, a Roman grammarian and Neoplatonist philosopher who flourished during the reigns of Honorius and Arcadius (395–423 AD).
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Thanks for the added value, Robert.

    It is clear that George Best didn't have the skills in maths to calculate actual insolation values.  However, his continual reference to 'reflection' of the sun's rays shows that he was aware of what we would now call re-radiation.  The term 'reflection' was a new coinage in Best's day and was always used in the context of surfaces.  Judging - within his context - his remarks on reflections, it seems that he had an intuitive grasp of the idea that our atmosphere traps heat.  However, he deduced wrongly that what we now call the greenhouse effect would be greater in the tropics than at the poles.

    For anyone who wants a bit more background information on the topic of insolation and latitude:
    "Georgie, Georgie, they called you the Belfast Boy..." :))) A wee different, Georgie Best, I recon... It's really funny to read something about a prominent person, whose name associates with someone soo entirely different! It still will be really hard for me to fancy a climate scientist, named George Best...

    Many Arctic explorers have played football on the ice.  I wonder if George Best ever did - either or both, the mental image is wonderful!  :)
    any culture that was sea faring would know the earth was round because they navigated by stars.

    I think it's a myth that people thought the world was flat - it's a way to make ourselves feel superior to our ancestors.

    I had a teacher once laugh about how the Romans undid themselves by having lead lined aquaducts and how foolish they were - in the 1970's when toothpaste tubes were partically made with lead so you could roll them up.

    Most people today could not get anywhere at all using the stars and it was the same then - certainly the more educated knew the world was not flat but Columbus was dealing with sailors on his own ships, not fellow navigators - the common man today may respond correctly to surveys asking if the world is flat, but only because they heard it was round from many places and accept it.   
    ... Columbus was dealing with sailors on his own ships, not fellow navigators ...

    You would think that sailors would know from their personal experiences that the world is round.  However, here in Chatham, a former Royal Navy base and dockyard town, a fellow named 'Parallax' gave one of his travelling lectures and was somewhat surprisingly not laughed out of town.


    On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 'Parallax' delivered his lectures at the Chatham Lecture Hall. The science he sets forth he denominates 'Zetetic Astronomy.' Whatever his hearers may think of his philosophy, they must admit that his lectures show him to have read and thought much. His discourses are very pleasing and interesting, and he expounds his doctrines in a way that ought to offend none.

    The variety of questions which a number of gentlemen asked the lecturer were readily and courteously answered, and in a way which appeared to satisfy most of the questioners. The audience got so interested in these discussions that it was midnight before all the arguers left. They evidently took the deepest interest in the subjects presented to them. Next week 'Parallax' is to give more lectures, as announced in our advertising columns.

    Chatham News - June 6th 1863
    Text courtesy
    In 1870, a Flat-Earth proponent named John Hampden offered a £500 wager (equivalent to about £35000 in present day terms) in a magazine advertisement to anyone who could demonstrate a convex curvature in a body of water such as a river, canal, or lake.  Alfred Russel Wallace, intrigued by the challenge and short of money at the time, designed an experiment in which he set up two objects along a six-mile (10 km) stretch of canal. Both objects were at the same height above the water and in a straight line with a telescope he mounted on a bridge. When seen through the telescope, one object appeared higher than the other, showing the curvature of the earth. The judge for the wager, the editor of Field magazine, declared Wallace the winner, but Hampden refused to accept the result. He sued Wallace and launched a campaign, which persisted for several years, of writing letters to various publications and to organisations of which Wallace was a member denouncing him as a swindler and a thief. Wallace won multiple libel suits against Hampden, but the resulting litigation cost Wallace more than the amount of the wager and the controversy frustrated him for years.

           ex fonte sapientiae omnis, Wikipedia (in the ablative case.)
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    ex fonte sapientiae omnis, Wikipedia

    I couldn't have put it any better myself, Robert.  :)

    Thanks for your contribution.
    Rudyard Kipling wrote an amusing story "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat".  Well worth a read, probably obtainable in a collected volume of his short stories.
    Rudyard Kipling wrote an amusing story "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat".  Well worth a read, probably obtainable in a collected volume of his short stories.

    Thanks for that, Erinaceus.  I hadn't read it before.  I found a copy in the Project Gutenberg collection: A Diversity of Creatures.  Absolutely hilarious - a highly recommended read.  Journalists making stuff up, police colluding to collect speeding fines, oil magnates trying to buy favorable press coverage - nothing new there, then.  :)

    A diversity of Creatures
    It’s quite likely a matter of quantity.  You’d get a lot more Pb from rather acidic wine stored in lead jars than from a small dollop of toothpaste, which you would rinse and spit out.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    .....and there was me thinking he was a great footballer ;-) [Someone had to do it....] Welcome back, Pat Aitch
    [Someone had to do it....]

    Someone did done it. :)  See comments above.

    Thanks for the 'welcome back', Aitch.