Getting names right is rather important in the history of science

“Have you seen my new Rolls Royce?”

“But that’s not a Rolls Royce; it’s a Fiat Bambino!”

“It’s got four wheels, an internal combustion engine and it gets you from a to b so it’s a Rolls Royce, isn’t it?”

“Well, no it isn’t.”

The little dialogue above would probably seem pretty ridiculous to any of my readers but today BBC News achieved something similar concerning scientific instruments. On the BBC website they posted a story with the following title, Astrolabe: Shipwreck find ‘earliest navigation tool’

The story is about the find of a scientific instrument found by marine archaeologists in 2014, in the wreck of a Portuguese ship that sank in 1503. Not just in the title, but also throughout the article the discovered instrument is simply referred to as an astrolabe. The article went on to say that astrolabes are relatively rare, and this is the only the 108th to be confirmed catalogued. It is also the earliest known example by several decades.

As it stood this was patent rubbish. There are more than 900 hundred known astrolabes between the earliest known dated instrument from 927 CE and 1900 CE. However the problem is not in the historical accuracy but in the name. The instrument that had been discovered is not an astrolabe but a mariner’s astrolabe a more than somewhat different instrument.

Astrolabe Renners Arsenius 1569
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mariner’s Astrolabe Francisco de Goes 1608 Source: Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Firenze

As I explained to someone on Twitter, as I had just corrected the tweet linking to the article for about the zillionth time, a mariner’s astrolabe is a very simplified form of the astrolabe specifically made for use on ships with just one function, the measuring of the altitude of a star or the sun in order to determine latitude. The astrolabe, however, is a very complex instrument with hundreds of different function in astronomy, chronology and surveying.

Following my protests, and those of others, the article has been changed very slightly for the majority of the article it still refers to the instrument as an astrolabe but about three quarters of the way through, the sentence that I have quoted above now starts “Mariners’ astrolabes” instead of simply astrolabes. So everything is now OK? Well, actually no.

All of the references to astrolabe should have been changed to mariner’s astrolabe and above all the click bait title should have been changed, as it also has a second major problem. It states, shipwreck find ‘earliest navigation tool’. This is complete rubbish. Mariner’s astrolabes are quite late developments in the history of navigation and there are many navigation tools that predate it, such as the quadrant, the sea chart, the compass etc. etc. This blatant hyperbolic error is corrected in the subtitle, which reads: An artefact excavated from a shipwreck off the coast of Oman has been found to be the oldest know example of a type of navigation tool [my emphasis]. But of course by now the damage has been done for the casual reader who just glances at the title.

This article is a mess and a lousy piece of history of science communication for which there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever.


Filed under History of Navigation

3 responses to “Getting names right is rather important in the history of science

  1. The definition of a ‘navigation tool’ is also problematic.

    If a ‘navigation tool’ is something that helps a navigator make his way, I think we’d have to posit the earliest navigation tool a piece of wood cut to specific measurements,( as in the Arab navigators’ kamal, or loh, by which apparent distance between stars and heights above the horizon were measured.

    Otherwise, the oldest navigation took could be argued some form of those ‘twig maps’ by which some Pacific island cultures would fix the star-paths, tides and directions in memory.

    I have no objection papers with fairly narrow interests, but agree with you that titles should be right. My pet bug-bear is the habit of European writers in presuming their own history is some sort of default. One finds a book entitled, ‘ Art of the tenth century’ or a ‘History of Exploration by Sea’… and on reading it discovers that the word ‘European’ has been omitted from the title, and one has bought a book which contains nothing but tenth-century western Christian art, or another regurgitation of the same-old-same-old official history of European experience.

    I agree – titles have to be right. One almost wishes they were more like the sort of titles you find in European printed books of the sixteenth-to-eighteenth centuries.

    Thony, if the subject should interest you, a nice short guide to European navigational instruments is contained in E.G.R. Taylor’s book, The Geometrical Seaman.

    • I am well aware of the works of both E.G.R Taylor and David Waters on the history of European navigation

      • Thony, you must forgive a fanatic. What is so loosely called the history of non-mathematical astronomy (can there be such a thing?) has proved a most fascinating study for the past four decades, and I have the devotees habit of urging the more accessible texts on everyone, at every opportunity:)

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