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Posts Tagged ‘Age of Discovery

“Geographers never get lost. They just do accidental field work.”*…



An image from The Catalan Atlas, 1375


When Christopher Columbus first set foot in what’s now the Bahamas, it was the lucky sum of a 1,400-year-old cartographical error and Columbus’s own miscalculations of the globe. The Genoese explorer believed the Eurasian landmass to cover nearly 2/3 of the earth’s circumference—the actual distance from Spain eastward to his target of eastern Asia was closer to 1/3 of the circumference.

Columbus’s image of the world was based on ancient maps that greatly overestimated the size of the Eurasian continent and depicted the planet’s circumference some 25 percent smaller than it actually was—a misjudgment compounded by his own wishful thinking and erroneous math. By his calculation, India lay within a 2,500-mile voyage west of Spain. He was off by about 8,000 miles.

Columbus’s errors are only a chapter in a series of discoveries, theories, and mistakes that tell the story of maps and mapmaking. Maps are a 10,000-year journey of humans trying to understand Earth. In 1492, most people had no idea what the world looked like; even some impressively accurate maps were full of myths and mistakes, from fantastical monsters to entire missing continents to swaths of terra incognita, or “unknown territory.”

Over time, errors were corrected and empty spaces were filled in, and today, much of the population walks around with a map of the entire Earth in their pocket that’s so detailed you can see your own front door…

Eight maps, from antiquity to today, that changed how we see the world: “Why Maps Are Civilization’s Greatest Tool.”

* Nicholas Chrisman


As we find our way, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1415 that Henry the Navigator led Portuguese forces to victory over the Marinids at the Battle of Ceuta, the Muslim port on the North African coast across the Straits of Gibraltar from the Iberian Peninsula– which marked the beginning of the Portuguese Empire in Africa.  Henry remained a central figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire and was a key driver of the 15th-century European maritime discoveries and maritime expansion. Through his administrative direction– including his patronage of cartographers– he is regarded as the main initiator of what would be known as the Age of Discovery.

220px-Henry_the_Navigator1 source


“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”*…



An 1874 engraving showing a probably apocryphal account of Newton’s lab fire. In the story, Newton’s dog started the fire, burning 20 years of research. Newton is thought to have said: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”


Imagine a black box which, when you pressed a button, would generate a scientific hypothesis. 50% of its hypotheses are false; 50% are true hypotheses as game-changing and elegant as relativity. Even despite the error rate, it’s easy to see this box would quickly surpass space capsules, da Vinci paintings, and printer ink cartridges to become the most valuable object in the world. Scientific progress on demand, and all you have to do is test some stuff to see if it’s true? I don’t want to devalue experimentalists. They do great work. But it’s appropriate that Einstein is more famous than Eddington. If you took away Eddington, someone else would have tested relativity; the bottleneck is in Einsteins. Einstein-in-a-box at the cost of requiring two Eddingtons per insight is a heck of a deal.

What if the box had only a 10% success rate? A 1% success rate? My guess is: still most valuable object in the world. Even an 0.1% success rate seems pretty good, considering (what if we ask the box for cancer cures, then test them all on lab rats and volunteers?) You have to go pretty low before the box stops being great.

I thought about this after reading this list of geniuses with terrible ideas. Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C cured everything. Isaac Newton spent half his time working on weird Bible codes. Nikola Tesla pursued mad energy beams that couldn’t work. Lynn Margulis revolutionized cell biology by discovering mitochondrial endosymbiosis, but was also a 9-11 truther and doubted HIV caused AIDS. Et cetera. Obviously this should happen. Genius often involves coming up with an outrageous idea contrary to conventional wisdom and pursuing it obsessively despite naysayers. But nobody can have a 100% success rate. People who do this successfully sometimes should also fail at it sometimes, just because they’re the kind of person who attempts it at all. Not everyone fails. Einstein seems to have batted a perfect 1000 (unless you count his support for socialism). But failure shouldn’t surprise us…

Some of the people who have most contributed to our understanding of the world have been inexcusably wrong on basic issues.  But, as Scott Alexander argues, you only need one world-changing revelation to be worth reading: “Rule Thinkers In, Not Out.”

* Mahatma Gandhi


As we honor insight where we find it, we might send carefully-addressed birthday greetings to Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator; he was born on this date in 1394.  A central figure in 15th-century Portuguese politics and in the earliest days of the Portuguese Empire, Henry encouraged Portugal’s expeditions (and colonial conquests) in Africa– and thus is regarded as the main initiator (as a product both of Portugal’s expeditions and of those that they encouraged by example) of what became known as the Age of Discoveries.




Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Who that goeth on Pilgrimage but would have one of these Maps about him, that he may look when he is at a stand, which is the way he must take?*…



Carta Marina, by Olaus Magnus, 1539


Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455, and the first published sailing directions appeared thirty-five years later. Print media encouraged the divergence of navigational information from material discussing the commercial prospects of trade at various ports. Printing promoted the widespread distribution of geographic and hydrographic information, including maps, to readers throughout Europe at a time when literacy was on the rise and the spreading use of vernacular languages made such works available to non-scholars…

Europe’s explorers actively sought and exploited both academic knowledge and geographic experience in their systematic search for new trade routes. Use of the sea ultimately rested on reliable knowledge of the ocean. Fresh appreciation for empirical evidence fueled recognition of the value of experience, and the process of exploration included mechanisms for accumulating and disseminating new geographic knowledge to form the basis for future navigation.

At the outset of the discovery of the seas, portolan charts recorded actual experiences at sea. These navigational aids provided mariners with compass direction and estimated the distance between coastal landmarks or harbors. Utterly novel for their time, portolans were the first charts to attempt to depict scale. Portolans created by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century explorers document Portuguese and Spanish discovery of Atlantic islands and the African coast and helped subsequent mariners retrace their steps. Accuracy of portolans was best over shorter distances, and they became less useful when navigators steered offshore.

In contrast to creators of portolans, armchair cartographers compiled world maps of little use for actual navigation but which reflected shifting knowledge of oceans. While manuscript maps had been produced alongside written manuscripts since antiquity, the earliest known printed map was included in an encyclopedia of 1470. It represents the world schematically within a circle, in which the three continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa are surrounded by an ocean river and separated from each other by horizontal and vertical rivers that form a T shape—hence the name “T-O” to describe this kind of map. Other early maps were based on Ptolemy’s work, on biblical stories or other allegories, or occasionally on portolans…

Although the majority of medieval maps and nautical charts of the Age of Discovery did not include sea monsters, the ones that do reveal both a rise of general interest in marvels and wonders and a specific concern for maritime activities that took place at sea, including in far distant oceans. The more exotic creatures are often positioned on maps at the edge of the Earth, conveying a sense of mystery and danger and perhaps discouraging voyages in those areas. Images of octopuses or other monsters attacking ships would seem to be warning of dangers to navigation…

An excerpt from a fascinating essay on how cartographers saw the– mostly blue– world in the Age of Discovery; read it in full at  “Mapping the Oceans.”

* John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress


As we find our way, we might light a birthday candle for Sir Francis Bacon– English Renaissance philosopher, lawyer, linguist, composer, mathematician, geometer, musician, poet, painter, astronomer, classicist, philosopher, historian, theologian, architect, father of modern science (The Baconian– aka The Scientific– Method), and patron of modern democracy, whom some allege was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I of England (and other’s, the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays)… He was in any event born on this date in 1561.

Bacon (whose Essays were, in a fashion, the first “management book” in English) was, in Alexander Pope’s words, “the greatest genius that England, or perhaps any country, ever produced.”  He probably did not actually write the plays attributed to Shakespeare (as a thin, but long, line of enthusiasts, including Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche, believed).   But Bacon did observe, in a discussion of sedition that’s as timely today as ever, that “the remedy is worse than the disease.”



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Life could be horrible in the wrong trouser of time”*…


The challenge that the multiverse poses for the idea of an all-good, all-powerful God is often focused on fine-tuning. If there are infinite universes, then we don’t need a fine tuner to explain why the conditions of our universe are perfect for life, so the argument goes. But some kinds of multiverse pose a more direct threat. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum physicist Hugh Everett III and the modal realism of cosmologist Max Tegmark include worlds that no sane, good God would ever tolerate. The theories are very different, but each predicts the existence of worlds filled with horror and misery.

Of course, plenty of thoughtful people argue that the Earth alone contains too much pain and suffering to be the work of a good God. But many others have disagreed, finding fairly nuanced things to say about what might justify God’s creation of a world that includes a planet like ours. For example, there is no forgiveness, courage, or fortitude without at least the perception of wrongs, danger, and difficulty. The most impressive human moral achievements seem to require such obstacles.

Still, many horrifying things happen with nothing seemingly gained from them. And, Everett’s many-worlds and Tegmark’s modal realism both seem to imply that there are huge numbers of horrific universes inhabited solely by such unfortunates. Someone like myself, who remains attracted to the traditional picture of God as loving creator, is bound to find such consequences shocking…

How scientific cosmology puts a new twist on the problem of evil.  A theist wrestles with the implications of the “Many World” hypothesis: “Evil Triumphs in These Multiverses, and God Is Powerless.”

* Terry Pratchett


As we calculate our blessings, we might send carefully-addressed birthday greetings to Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator; he was born on this date in 1394.  A central figure in 15th-century Portuguese politics and in the earliest days of the Portuguese Empire, Henry encouraged Portugal’s expeditions (and colonial conquests) in Africa– and thus is regarded as the main initiator (as a product both of Portugal’s expeditions and of those that they encouraged by example) of what became known as the Age of Discoveries.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

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