Here There Were Dragons

Long ago, in days of yore (or even pre-yore), we didn’t know that much about this big blue ball we live on. Contrary to popular belief, most educated people knew it was a ball…the Greeks proved that with the Sun’s shadow and trigonometry more than a thousand years before an Italian sailor convinced a Spanish queen to fund his little cruise. But what was on that ball, that was a mystery.

Columbus’s major accomplishment was filling in a big blank spot. Sure, he thought he had found some islands off the coast of his REAL goal, the East Indies, but his place in history was secure. There was something taking up space between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Just what it was would take another few hundred years (and a revolution or three) to figure out.

Old timey map of the world
To reach the South Pole, take a left at Perth…and keep on walking.

Those big blank spots are all over the maps from the romantically-named Age of Exploration. Even when intrepid map-makers got a little creative with their landmasses (see the picture–never knew you could walk from Australia to Antarctica!), you can tell they’re just making it up. You don’t need to spot the giant fish or sea monsters floating around to get the message: we don’t know what’s out there.

Time moved on and, thanks to the explorers and those who gave them money, their instruments got better. Sextants measured the stars, compasses got better…it wasn’t until 1735 that John Harrison invented a clock good enough to enable sailors to calculate longitude! And yet, those crazy explorers still kept going out, FAR more than we’ve ever heard of…you don’t get to put your name on a part of the map if no one ever makes it back.

Side note: The Torres Strait between Australia & New Guinea got its name from the Spanish navigator who managed, somehow to sail through it without spotting Cape York (Australia). Since you can see about 20-25 miles all around from the topmast and the strait is only about 90 miles wide, he just missed beating Cook to Australia by 165 years.

I love these old maps, cartographically challenged though they might be. They give me a real sense of what those explorers were facing when they headed off the edge of the world, or into the heart of deepest darkest Africa. “What’s out there in the dark?” they wondered…and then went out into it. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around these days, when we can call up satellite-exact maps (with weather forecasts too!) on the GPS-enabled device of your choosing. Those guys had no clue…and did it anyways.

We’ve lost some of that real frontier spirit nowadays. You can spout off about exploring the human mind or micro-particles but that’s just crap. The MACRO world, now that’s real peril. No wonder I like science fiction about exploring space…that’s a whole lotta dark. We really need to head out into it and see what blank spots there are to fill in. Let’s go meet some dragons.


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