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Posts Tagged ‘Prince Henry the Navigator

“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

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