Astronomy in Metal Heaven

Astrolabes at the Museum for the History of Science at Oxford.

If you ever want to embar­rass me, try to get me to enthuse about a dis­play of astro­labes. They’re the kind of thing I should love. They’re devices for show­ing what is vis­ible in the sky at any given time. They’re very sim­ilar to the plan­i­spheres that people use today. The math­em­at­ics behind them is eleg­ant. The best also tend to have extraordin­ar­ily ornate metal­work to com­ple­ment the soph­ist­ic­a­tion of the devices. Yet, when they’re hanging up like this, they leave me cold.

I think the reason is that an astro­labe on dis­play is a dead astro­labe. There are bet­ter ways to show a static night sky. What you need is an astro­labe in motion to appre­ci­ate them. That’s what makes this talk by Tom Wujec so good. He demon­strates how you could use an astro­labe to tell the time. In his hands, an astro­labe becomes a lot more interesting.

Tom Wujec demos the 13th-century astro­labe video from TED.

It’s easy to under­es­tim­ate how much you can do if you’re will­ing to observe intently. What I also like about this talk is that Tom Wujec emphas­ises the import­ance of con­nect­ing with the night sky. You could claim accur­ate clocks have broken this con­nec­tion, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Where I live light pol­lu­tion is often so bad that I could not use an astro­labe. He’s right to point out that you can lose things with pro­gress. Ironically Global Astronomy Month with try to show how immense the uni­verse is, while arte­facts like this show that on a day-to-day basis for urban dwell­ers the vis­ible world is much smal­ler than the cos­mos of the past.

You can see many astro­labes like the one below at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

A Persian Astrolabe at the Museum for the History of Science at Oxford.

A Persian Astrolabe at the Museum for the History of Science at Oxford.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Alice says:

    Astrolabes! Everyone loves an astro­labe! I assume you know the George 3rd Gallery at the London Science Museum? (spent rather more time there than I should admit to…).

    Thanks for the TED talk link — great.

    • Alun says:

      Sadly no, I’ve not spent much time in the London Science Museum. I jogged through last Thursday to get a couple of snaps of the Propero model as I had a bit of free time after a meet­ing at the RSC. Generally I don’t find London very easy to get to. I’ll have to make the time to go down as it’s changed massively for the better.