EDUCATION: Old-School Navigation

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Science  01 Dec 2000:
Vol. 290, Issue 5497, pp. 1647
DOI: 10.1126/science.290.5497.1647d

Modern seafarers are equipped with charts, radar, even satellite mapping systems—and still their ships sometimes sink or run aground. Now, with the help of Rice University historian Patricia Seed, imagine sailing the high seas in the early days of navigation, when even bold Vikings rarely ventured far from sight of land.

“Latitude: The Art and Science of Fifteenth-Century Navigation” tells the story of how navigation opened the world to European explorers and colonizers. The site is comprehensive; Seed describes early ships, charts, and sailing methods (as far back as the Vikings) and delves into how the navigators of the day used the sun's position and star charts to work out their position. Primers and links inform cybersailors about some of the other obstacles that tended to keep the Europeans close to home, such as wind patterns and contrary currents. Other links lead to treatises on the science of mapmaking and to the Great Globe Gallery, a clearinghouse of hundreds of maps and images, ranging from depictions of continental drift to the worldwide distribution of coral reefs.

For an in-depth look at how sailors get their bearings, try this step-by-step tutorial from Purdue University . It navigates briskly through the arcane vocabulary and mathematics of fixing your position by the stars. The know-how could come in handy if your Global Positioning System receiver breaks down.

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