“The Discoverers” by Daniel J. Boorstin


Book #100!

An ambitious title – the history of “discovery,” which can really be interpreted in many ways. I liked the stuff about calendars, clocks, maps and exploration. However, the sections on medicine and sociology in the latter third or so of the book was a bit of a slog. Each chapter is almost like a standalone essay, but they do flow well … until the end, which ends quite abruptly. (It discusses atomic theory; perhaps setting up Einstein’s quote “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible” in order to sum up the whole book.)

Anyway, lots of interesting stuff here; I’ll share some of the best bits I learned from reading.

  • The origins of our calendar are in the lunar cycle, which provided a ~30 day month. This didn’t quite mesh with the solar year, which the Egyptians determined quite accurately to be 365 1/4 days long. The origin of the seven day week is unknown, perhaps the sun + moon + five known planets? Twenty-four hours in a day comes from the Babylonians, who had a 12-based counting system. While 10-based seems logical to use due to 10 fingers, 12 is also not a stretch — it’s the number of knuckles on one hand (excluding thumb), which were counted off using the opposing hand’s thumb.
  • Clocks are known as “mother of machines.” In order to make them work, medieval craftsmen had to discover mechanisms of transferring mechanical energy. Once this was figured out for clocks, the same principles were applied to many other things, and here we are today with Iphones. Any, the key to clocks were the verge escapement and pendulum. There was a positive driving force behind developing clocks from the Church: they needed to ring the bells at different times of day for Catholic prayers. (Why didn’t Muslims make clocks first? Was it because they used only verbal calls to prayer?)
  • Originally, the hour was a division of daylight into equal partitions. This is fine I guess if you really have no way to accurately measure time, but rather tricky to automate such timekeeping with a clock, since amount of daylight varies per location on the globe and differs from day to day. Early clock makers tried to follow this with complicated systems that required almost constant and setting calibration before simplifying things to the current system. It was the right thing to do — later the discovery of an accurate way to measure longitude depended on clocks. What you do is set your clock at high noon at a known location, then go sailing and check your clock at “high noon” wherever you happen to be (when the sun is directly overhead). The difference your clock says from noon is the difference in longitude you have traveled. It’s no coincidence that degrees of longitude (and latitude) are subdivided into minutes and seconds. (How to tell latitude? Just get a stick with a weighted string on the end. Point it to the North Star and measure the angle of the string.  There you go, that’s latitude.)
  • On the other hand, mapmaking and geography suffered negatively from the Church’s influence. Reasonably accurate physical maps and a latitude/longitude-like grid system inherited from the Greeks and Romans were discarded in favor of an overly-literal Biblical layout: rough circle with Asia taking up one half, Europe and Africa the other, with Jerusalem in the middle and all 3 continents separated by the Mediterranean.
  • Prince Henry the Navigator is kind of a new hero for me after reading this book. He focused on mapmaking, new ship design (caravel), and setting up conditions for “incremental discovery” — kind of like an early research institute. One major obstacle to the early Portuguese was Cape Bojador in West Africa. It was the ends of the earth to them – difficult to circumvent, both logistically and psychologically. But once they did, it was almost like an attitude of “hey, that wasn’t so bad! And look at all this cool new stuff!” (Some of the “cool stuff” to them was slaves … Portuguese quickly became big slave traders. Not so cool from our perspective.) Year by year, the explorers ventured further and further until Gama rounded the Cape and was on to India. There’s an early Portuguese saga, Camoens‘ “Lusiads,” which is about this golden age of Portuguese exploration; it stuck out to me because Burton who I just read about was very interested in Camoens and this period as well.
  • Modern-day denizens are astounded by the brutality of the times. When Gama came a second time to India, this time in conquistador-mode, he rounded up several random Indians without cause, killed them, cut off their hands and heads, and sent it on to persuade Calicut’s ruler to surrender. Needless to say, resistance was brief. Gama is a Portuguese hero.  And, while the barbarism of the Vikings is not unknown, it’s horrifying that one Norseman was renowned for his gentleness, since he refused to impale small children, a typical way for Vikings to unwind at the end of a long day of pillaging. (Presumably, this gentle Viking had no qualms about whatever he did to the parents!)
  • The origin of the term “America” – Columbus always insisted that he had reached Asia. Later, Amerigo Vespucci went down S. America coast and publicly speculated that it was an entirely new land. The secrecy of Spain and Portugal regarding their discoveries (the nuclear secrets of the age) meant the outside world didn’t hear of everything right away. Vespucci came later than Columbus, but his accounts became more widespread earlier. A mapmaker in France heard of Vespucci and put his name on the new world, and it stuck.
  • Linnaeus – the whole genus-species naming convention happened basically all at once, largely by him. Latin names don’t necessarily describe the organism, just a way to remember and categorize the organism and define it across language boundaries.

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