Burnett graduated from Princeton University in 1993 as the salutatorian and a recipient of the Pyne Prize. With the support of a Marshall Scholarship he completed a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University (1997 ), where he was a member of Trinity College. Burnett was awarded the 1999 Nebenzahl Prize in the History of Cartography, and was editorially involved with the History of Cartography Project. Before joining the Princeton faculty in 2001, he taught at Yale and was a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities at Columbia University (1997–1999) and an inaugural fellow in the Center for Scholars and Writers (the Cullman Center) at the New York Public Library (1999–2000). He held the Christian Gauss Fund University Preceptorship in 2006, and has since been awarded a Guggenheim, and a Mellon “New Directions” Fellowship. His scholarly interests include the history of natural history and the sciences of the earth and the sea from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, including cartography, navigation, oceanography, and ecology/environmentalism. He has also worked on Charles Darwin, the history of exploration, and early modern optics. More recently, he has focused on aesthetics, media, vision, and the history of attention. His first book, Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (2000), examines the relationship between cartography and colonialism in the nineteenth century. He is also the author of Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest (2005), a monograph on Cartesian thought and seventeenth-century lens making, and A Trial By Jury (2001), a narrative account of his experience as the jury foreman on a Manhattan murder trial. His book Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature(2007) won the 2007 Hermalyn Prize in Urban History and the New York City Book Award in 2008. (You can see Burnett talking about Trying Leviathan at the Smithsonian here; and click here (part 1; part 2) for an interview with Burnett about the writing of the book.) The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century came out in 2012; listen to a recording of Burnett speaking about it here. In 2018, he published the co-authored KEYWORDS;
…Relevant to Academic Life, &c., which has recently come out in a Turkish translation; more about that book here. Burnett has written essays and reviews for a variety of publications, including the New Yorker, Harpers, the Economist, the American Scholar (where he served two terms on the editorial board), Daedalus (where he was a contributing editor), the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Republic. In 2008 he became an editor at the Brooklyn-based art magazine Cabinet, and he also serves on the editorial board of Lapham’s Quarterly. He is the founding editor of the “Conjectures” series at the Public Domain Review. Burnett is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and at Princeton he is affiliated with the Program in History of Science, the Center for Architecture, Urbanism, and Infrastructure, and the Princeton Environmental Institute. He serves on the executive committee of the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities or IHUM, where he teaches regular graduate seminars.