C is for Compass
In today’s world we navigate with the aid of GPS, radar, sonar and other high-tech stuff. Even technological troglodytes like me, who don’t have GPS or a smartphone, can consult Googlemaps and know the exact route we need to take and even view photos of what our destination will look like.
But imagine sailing the seas without one.
Historical records indicate that compasses were not used as a navigational aid to Europeans until sometime in the late twelfth century, and they weren’t in common use until even later. (The magnetic properties of lodestone were recognized by ancients such as Greeks and Chinese, but apparently none of them thought of using a magnetized needle to help sailors navigate in bad weather—so ancient seafarers had to blunder along without such tools for an additional thousand years or so.)
Can you imagine sailing the seas without so much as a compass to guide you? But people did. For centuries. People like the Phoenecians, Greeks, and Vikings. It sheds a whole new light on Paul’s shipwreck account, doesn’t it? After being blown off course, and not seeing sun nor stars for thirteen or fourteen days, they had no idea where they were and no way to figure it out. The fact that they ended up on Malta is nothing short of a miracle. (For a detailed play-by-play account of the whole story, visit this site.)
How did they do it?
When possible, ancient seafarers stayed within sight of land (which would explain all the stops Luke mentions during Paul’s sea travels.) When they risked crossing expanses of open sea, they did so where prevailing winds and currents could be depended upon to take them where they hoped to go. And although they didn’t have a sextant or a compass, they did have one tool to help them navigate: their fist.
If you clench your fist and hold it at arm’s length, the width of your fist is equivalent to an angular distance of ten degrees. That means a sailor could determine the height of a specific star above the horizon with a fair degree of accuracy, fair enough to help them sail those wine-dark seas.
Amateur astronomers still use this handy fact today when they want to find something in the night sky, since star or satellite positions are given in degrees above the horizon.
C is also for Cool Rocket Launch
And speaking of things in the night sky, how would you like to watch a rocket launch? If you live within a few hundred miles of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, (near Chincoteague, VA) you might have a chance. Several months ago I watched one from right here in southeast PA, and there is another launch coming soon. When I last checked, the launch was scheduled for 6:44 EDT this coming Monday (10/27), but check their Facebook page or website for up-to-date info.
For those in southeastern PA, all you need to do is find an open field or pasture–preferably without streetlights or dusk-to-dawn lights–that gives you an unobstructed view to the south. The previous launch looked something like a really impressive meteor, but travelling much slower. It flared, traveled, disappeared, then re-appeared when the second stage rocket lit. If you’re close enough, and the sky is clear, give it a try.