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The Voynich Manuscript: the unsolved riddle of an extraordinary book which has defied interpretation for centuries, Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill (Orion paperback 2005)

Many things that fall under the Fortean label – they’re supposedly strange, anomalous, mysterious – dwindle under further investigation. There’s less to them than meets the eye. The Voynich Manuscript isn’t like that. It’s a hand-written book, heavily illustrated and annotated, that is genuinely mysterious and interesting. What is it about? Who wrote it? Why? After decades of analysis, we’re no nearer answering those questions.

Even if there’s no real language behind the script it uses, as statistical patterns seem to indicate, it’s still a fascinating object. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create it, whether it or not it’s full of gibberish, and a completely mad creator might be even more interesting than a rational one. Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, the authors of this detailed study, look at all the main candidates for authorship, from the friar Roger Bacon to the occultist John Dee and the bookseller Wilfred Voynich.

Voynich gave his name to the manuscript because he discovered it. Or so he said. Some have claimed that he created it instead, but they’re certainly wrong. It really is centuries old, as proved by both carbon-dating and provenance, and it’s been defeating the best efforts of cryptologists for centuries too. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher seems to have been baffled by it in the mid-seventeenth-century. In the early twenty-first century, cryptologists are still baffled. Is there a real language there, artificial or otherwise? Probably not:

[S]ome very unusual patterns of words … can be found in the manuscript. On most pages of the manuscript strings of the same words are repeated up to five times, or on other occasions, even longer strings of words with only the odd change to individual letters. This would be like writing the word that five times in succession in a phrase in modern English, or producing a sentence along the lines of Brought bought bough, though tough, through trough. It is almost impossible to conceive of a language where this would happen regularly, if at all. As Mary D’Imperio says, reporting the words of several Voynich researchers, “the text just doesn’t act like natural language.” (ch. 5, “The Cryptological Maze – Part II”, pg. 155)

But why would anyone write gibberish for so many pages and accompany that gibberish with so many strange drawings? There are plants, charts and naked women in baths. Is it a botanical text or an alchemical treatise? Or did a hoaxer want people to think that it was? Most researchers think that it was created with a serious purpose. I agree, but in one important way that doesn’t matter. The Voynich Manuscript may never be deciphered, but it’s already given us some valuable lessons in wishful thinking. As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, which Kennedy and Churchill also discuss, researchers have claimed successful decipherments of the Voynich Manuscript that turned out to be nothing of the kind. William Newbold saw microscopic variations in the symbols that weren’t really there; James Feeley thought they were Latin shorthand.

Both of them announced their decipherments with great confidence; both of them were completely wrong. No-one else has been any more successful and the Voynich Manuscript has defeated researchers with much more expertise and much more powerful analytical tools. This book is an excellent introduction to a genuinely mysterious object. Theories about it will continue to multiply, but it may never reveal its secrets. Perhaps that would be for the best.

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Sextant by David Barrie
Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, David Barrie (William Collins 2014)

When a triumphant emperor rode through Rome, he’s said to have had a slave at his shoulder whispering: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.” This book has a related message for its readers: “Remember, you’re comfortable.” The world has become much smaller and much safer since the days when a sextant was an essential part of every ship’s equipment.

Or has seemed to become smaller and safer, anyway. David Barrie reminded himself of the underlying reality by sailing across the Atlantic in 1973 with two companions in a 35-ft sloop called Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for “Sea-Queen”). The voyage was powered by the wind and guided by the heavens in the old-fashioned way:

Of course I was intellectually aware of the size of the ocean when we set out from Halifax [on the coast of Nova Scotia], but spending twenty-four days crossing it under sail gave its dimensions a very different and truly sublime reality. The long night watches looking up at the stars in the black immensity of space were a lesson in humility and the experience of a gale in mid-Atlantic left me wondering what it must be like to encounter a real storm. People often talk idiotically about “conquering mountains” or “defying the sea”, but there is no real contest. I was left with an overwhelming sense of nature’s vast scale and complete indifference, and this had a strangely calming effect. We come and we go, the earth too was born and will eventually die, but the universe in all its chilly splendour abides. (ch. 18, “Two Landfalls”, pp. 289-90)

That’s at the end of the book. Descriptions of Barrie’s voyage in the 1970s open almost every previous chapter and set the context first for a history of celestial navigation and then for the stories of the men who used it. Their expertise with sextants and other instruments won them fame, but not always fortune. Nor a quiet and dignified death. Captain Cook charted the Pacific, then was hacked to death on Hawaii in 1779. Joshua Slocum made the first solo circumnavigation of the world in 1895-6, then “disappeared at sea after setting sail from Martha’s Vineyard on a single-handed voyage to the Amazon in November 1908” (ch. 15, “Slocum Circles the World”, pg. 255).

George Bass, after whom the strait separating Tasmania from Australia is named, disappeared too, perhaps at sea, perhaps into the slave-mines of a Spanish colony in South America: “Whatever the truth, Bass was never heard of again.” (ch. 12, “Flinders – Coasting Australia”, pg. 176) That was in 1803. I hadn’t heard of Bass before or of his even more adventurous companion Matthew Flinders. And I didn’t know that Vancouver in Canada was named after the explorer George Vancouver. I’m glad to have changed that.

I had heard of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, but I’ understood the scale of his achievements better by reading this book. He had witnessed Cook’s death on Hawaii, which was why he didn’t want to risk landing on any of the islands of the Tongan archipelago after he was set adrift in an open boat by Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers. Instead, equipped with only a sextant and compass, Bligh set sail for “Timor, in the Dutch East Indies, some 3,600 nautical miles away” (ch. 4, “Bligh’s Boat Journey”, pg. 41). He needed both skill and “bloody-minded determination” to succeed.

He also needed intelligence. That combination explains why this book about mapping the world’s oceans is dominated by men from a small corner of that world: north-western Europe. Cook, Bligh, Flinders and Bass were English; Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Perouse, were French. There’s an “x” in sextant and an “XY” in the human beings who invented and used the instrument. Galileo was one of them: his discovery of the Jovian moons provided a way to determine longitude.

Latitude was relatively easy: you can obtain that by determining the height of, say, Polaris at the north celestial pole. If Polaris is directly overhead, you’re at the north pole. If it’s on the horizon, you’re on the equator. If you can’t see Polaris at all, you’re in the southern hemisphere. Or it’s daylight or a cloudy night. Navigation in past centuries was difficult and dangerous. When Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell got it wrong “on the night of 22 October 1707”, he lost four ships and 2,000 men on the “reef-strewn Isles of Scilly” (ch. 5, “Anson’s Ordeals”, pg. 54). Barrie adds that “Shovell himself was washed ashore and reportedly murdered by a local woman who fancied the ring on his finger.”

Even today, with GPS, radar and secure communications, the sea is still claiming lives. This book reminds you of the days when it claimed many more and was a much more frightening place to venture. Those days may return: modern electronics and satellite technology are a fragile system and Barrie describes at the end of the book how some sailors deliberately abandon it, training themselves to rely on their own eyes and brains, not on the pressing of buttons. This book is about balls in more senses than one. The Polynesians who made astonishing voyages over the Pacific didn’t use only their eyes:

When the horizon was obscured and its changing slant could not tell them how their boat was responding to the waves, they apparently stood with their legs apart, using the inertia of their testicles as a guide. (ch. 17, “‘These are men’”, pg. 283)

That’s a reminder of the male biochemistry underlying the courage required to face the sea and the spatial skills that had to accompany it. There are lots of balls elsewhere: the terrestrial globe and the globes of the sun, moon, planets and stars that helped men navigate their way around it. Sextant is a fascinating read about some formidable men and their often frightening voyages. They helped shape the modern world and you can’t understand the modern world without knowing something about them. This book is an excellent place to start.

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Front cover of Sea Charts of the British Isles by John BlakeSea Charts of the British Isles: A Voyage of Discovery around Britain & Ireland’s Coastline, John Blake (Conway Maritime Press, 2005)

This is a bonnet-book. Opening it is like lifting the sleek, stream-lined bonnet of a car to reveal the complicated and powerful engine beneath. Sea Charts of the British Isles reminds you of what goes on beneath the surface and of what you might have been taking for granted. In this case, it’s sea-faring: the apparently simple task of sailing from one place to another. But it’s not simple and it’s never been safe:

The first lighthouse [at the Eddystone Rock off Plymouth], built by Henry Winstanley in 1698, was of wood in an octagonal shape, and strengthened in 1699. Winstanley was captured by a French privateer during construction, but Louis XIV ordered his release, pronouncing that, “We are at war with England, and not humanity.” Winstanley rebuilt the lighthouse in 1703, testing providence – and losing – as he wanted to sit out a storm in the lighthouse. The storm that came was one of the worst ever recorded and when it abated both he and the lighthouse were gone. (ch. 1, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 17)

To avoid hazards at sea, you have to know not just where they are but where you are. Lighthouses are one way of marking hazards, but you can’t put a lighthouse on every rock. So you need charts and ways of finding yourself on them. This book is about the charts and the charts are guides to navigation: they often have mysterious, slanting and radiating lines that you don’t find on land-maps. You don’t usually drown or founder if you go astray on land and you can easily ask directions. Before satellite-positioning, you had to find directions at sea for yourself:

Portolani or books of sailing directions, known in England as rutters of the sea, existed in medieval times, before the chart as we have come to know it was conceived… The English navigator would rely heavily on the rutter, given the meagre navigation equipment of medieval times, which he used along with the compass, and lead and line for sounding depths… The portolan charts were based on a framework of 16 compass roses equally spaced and arranged in a circle, with radiating rhumb lines that navigators could use as a guide to lay off a course to steer. (ch. I, “Charting the British Isles”, pg. 22-5)

Looking through this book, you can trace the evolution of both navigation and cartography from page to page, century to century. Charts once showed Scotland “as a separate island (as some may wish it now)” (ch. I, pg. 11) and the coastline of Britain only vaguely resembled reality. Paradoxically, as cartography became more scientific and the charts became more realistic and accurate, so they became more evocative too. A medieval chart tastes of paper, not of the sea. By the end of the eighteenth century, charts let you taste the sea and hear the sea-birds:

The first admiralty chart published of the Scilly Isles was drawn by Graeme Spence in 1792. … This is a stunning piece of hydrographic surveying with 23 views of the indented, complex coast of this island group battered by the Atlantic. Lying 32 miles off Land’s End, with balmy temperatures all year-round, it is an internationally important area with large numbers of sea-birds breeding on the islands, including the red-beaked puffin, and most notably the European storm-petrel … (ch. III, “The South Coast of England”, pg. 65)

Spence’s chart isn’t intended as art or evocation, but it is artistic and it does evoke. So does the “Chart of Caithnesshire and the Orkneys” published by Laurie and Whittle in 1794, with “pilot information and sailing directions” for the Merchant Navy (ch. VI, “Scotland”, pg. 106). This evocation-by-accuracy found in real charts and maps is borrowed by fantasy-writers like Ursula Le Guin, whose archipelago-world of Earthsea gains extra power from the fact that it has been given a realistic map. If Earthsea also had charts with sailing-directions, it would have even more power. Symbols, sightings, soundings would add verisimilitude to an invented world and offer more food to the reader’s imagination. But there’s plenty of food for the imagination in this book about charts for a real world.

It’s also interesting to ask why charts are more powerful than maps. I enjoy looking at both, but there’s something special in a static representation of a highly dynamic thing. The sea regularly rises and falls, irregularly rages and calms, so charts have to indicate tides and currents. And depths too: the land doesn’t hide its secrets the way the sea does. Charts can also go out of date very quickly and easily, because sandbanks can shift and rock-formations collapse overnight. This book doesn’t just tour space, it tours time too, whether it’s human or hydrographic. All coastlines are beautiful, but the British and Irish coastline has a special place in maritime history, because the British Isles have given so much to sea-faring. See the sea-faring, and the special place, right here.

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