Coming of Age in the Milky Way - Timothy Ferris (2003)



There will come a time in the later years when Ocean shall loosen the bonds by which we have been confined, when an immense land shall be revealed … and Thule will no longer be the most remote of countries.


The sea was like a river.

—Christopher Columbus

           The reawakening of informed inquiry into the nature of cosmological space that we associate with the Renaissance had its roots in an age of terrestrial exploration that began at about the time of Marco Polo’s adventures in China in the thirteenth century and culminated two hundred years later with Columbus’s discovery of America. Astronomy and the exploration of the earth had of course long been related. Navigators had been steering by the stars for millennia, as evidenced by the Chinese practice of calling their blue-water junks “starry rafts” and by the legend that Jason the Argonaut was the first man to employ constellations as an aid to memorizing the night sky. When Magellan crossed the Pacific, his fleet following an artificial star formed by a blazing torch set on the stern of his ship, he was navigating waters that had been traversed thousands of years earlier by the colonizers of Micronesia, Australia, and New Guinea—adventurers in dugout canoes who, like Jason, carried their star maps in their heads. Virgil emphasized the importance of sighting the stars in his account of Aeneas’ founding of Rome:

   Not yet had night,
Whirled onward by the hours,
Reached her mid course, when from his couch
The ever watchful Palinurus arose.
He examined every wind, listening
To the breeze, and marked all the stars
That swim across the silent heavens:
Arcturus, and the rainy Hyades;
The twin bears, and Orion armed in gold.
When he was satisfied that all
Was calm in the cloudless sky,
From off the stern he sounded the signal call.
We struck the camp, essayed our course anew,
And spread our sail wings.
   When dawn was reddening,
And the stars were being put to flight,
Far off we beheld the shadowy hills,
Of Italy, low lying. “Italy!”

Explorers of dry land found the stars useful, too; American Indians lost in the woods took comfort in the presence of Father Sky, his hands the great rift that divides the Cygnus-Sagittarius zone of the Milky Way, and escaped slaves making their way north through the scrub pines of Georgia and Mississippi were admonished to “follow the drinking gourd,” meaning the Big Dipper. Ptolemy employed his considerable knowledge of geography to aid his studies of astronomy; his assertion that the earth is but a point compared to the celestial sphere was based in part upon the testimony of travelers who ventured south into central Africa or north toward Thule and reported seeing no evidence that their wanderings had brought them any closer to the stars in those quarters of the sky.1

Thus, though the principal motive for the new wave of European exploration was economic—European adventurers stood to make a fortune if they could “orient” themselves, by navigating an ocean route to the East—it is not surprising to learn that one of its instigators was an astronomer. He was a Florentine named Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, and he emphasized that knowledge as well as wealth was to be found in the East. Asia, Toscanelli wrote enticingly to Christopher Columbus,

is worthy to be sought by the Latins not only because immense wealth can be had in the form of gold, silver, gems of every kind, and spices which are never brought to us; but also because of the learned men, wise philosophers and astrologers by whose genius and arts those mighty and magnificent provinces are governed.2

Much of the romance that colored the Western image of the East had come from Marco Polo’s extraordinary book recounting his equally extraordinary travels in China. Marco came from Venice, itself no backwater, but nothing had prepared him for the likes of Hangchow, which he visited in 1276 and from which he never quite recovered. “The greatest city in the world,” he called it, “where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in Paradise.” Hangchow stood on a lake amid jumbled, misty mountains, the literal depiction of which by Sung landscape painters still strikes Western eyes as almost too good to be true. “In the middle of the lake,” Marco reported,

there are two islands, on each of which stands a palatial edifice with an incredibly large number of rooms and separate pavilions. And when anyone desired to hold a marriage feast, or to give a big banquet, it used to be done at one of these palaces. And everything would be found there ready to order, such as dishes, napkins and tablecloths and whatever else was needed. These furnishings were acquired and maintained at common expense by the citizens in these palaces constructed by them for this purpose.3

Ornately carved wooden boats were available for hire, the largest of them capable of serving multiple-course banquets to scores of diners at a sitting. Skiffs maneuvered alongside the larger boats, carrying little orchestras and “sing-song girls” in bright silk dresses and boatmen selling chestnuts, melon seeds, lotus roots, sweetmeats, roast chicken, and fresh seafood. Other boats carried live shellfish and turtles, which in accordance with Buddhist custom one purchased and then threw back into the water alive. The lake was clear, thanks to strict antipollution ordinances, and its banks were given over to public parks—this a legacy of Hangchow’s revered prefect Su Tung-p’o, a gifted poet who was often in trouble with the authorities. Wrote Su:

Drunk, I race up Yellow Grass Hill,
Slope strewn with boulders like flocks of sheep.
At the top collapse on a bed of stone,
Staring at white clouds in a bottomless sky.
My song wings to the valley on long autumn winds.
Passers-by look up, gaze southeast,
Clap their hands and laugh: “The governor’s gone mad!”4

All of which was a long way from the cold stone walls and plainsongs of northern Europe, and even from the commercial bustle and guile of Venice.

Bolstering the travelers’ tales was tangible evidence of Asian glory, in the form of silks and lacquer boxes and spices and drugs that had reached Europe overland. The Silk Road by which these treasures arrived, however, had long been a costly bucket-brigade of middlemen and brigands, and was now being constricted by the Black Death and the retreat of the Mongol khanates before an expanding Islamic empire. By the fifteenth century the European powers were ready to try reaching the East on their own, by sea.

The epicenter of this venturesome new spirit was Sagres, a spit of land at the southwesternmost tip of Europe that juts out into the ocean like a Renaissance Cape Canaveral. There, in 1419, a spaceport of sorts was established by Prince Henry the Navigator. A devout, monomaniacal Christian in a hair shirt, his eyes baggy with the fatigue of overwork and the vexation of debt, Henry was the first to explore the coast of Africa and to exploit its riches in gold, sugar, and slaves, and the first to navigate a seaway around Africa to Asia.

His library at Sagres contained an edition of Marco Polo (translated by his wandering brother Pedro) and a number of other books that encouraged Henry’s belief that Africa could be circumnavigated, opening up a seaway to the East. The evidence, though fragmentary, was tantalizing. Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. recounted (though he did not believe it) a story that Phoenician expeditionaries had rounded Africa from the east, eventually finding that while sailing west they had the sun on their right—which Henry understood, as Herodotus did not, to mean that they were south of the equator. Two centuries later, Eudoxus of Cyzicus (no relation to the astronomer) was reported in a book by Strabo the geographer to have found, in Ethiopia, the sculptured prow of a wrecked ship that the natives said had come from the west; Eudoxus took the prow home with him to Egypt and was told by the local sailors and traders that it belonged to a vessel that had sailed out through the Columns of Hercules, never to be seen again. In the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an anonymous geography dating from the first century A.D., Henry could read that “beyond the town of Rhapta”—i.e., opposite Zanzibar—“the unexplored coast curves away to the west and mingles with the Western Ocean.”5

Emboldened by these and similar accounts, Henry installed on Sagres’s windswept promontory an astronomical observatory and navigational institute, staffed by German mathematicians, Italian cartographers, and Jewish and Muslim scholars who were put to work determining the circumference of the earth and drawing improved maps. He drew on the stars for spiritual as well as for navigational guidance; his horoscope had predicted that he was fated to direct the conquest of unknown lands. He did not sail himself, but rather dispatched his expeditions, more than a dozen of them, down the coast of Africa.

His captains proceeded with understandable trepidation. Many believed, on the authority of the ancient geographers, that the Torrid Zone to the south was too hot to endure and that it was guarded by a Green Sea of Darkness that was perpetually enshrouded in fog. Nor did the realities prove to be much less unpleasant than the fables. The sea off Cape Non opposite the Canaries did indeed turn blood red (from ruddy sands blown off the deserts near the coast) and farther south the waters turned green, and there was, to be sure, plenty of fog. At Cape Bojador, called by the ancients “the end of the world,” the coast rose up in a seemingly interminable wall of harborless cliffs. Fifty-foot waves threatened to smash the explorers’ caravels against the rocks of Cape Juby. One landing party stumbled on elephant chips nearly the size of a man. Another was attacked by natives shooting poisoned arrows; only five of the twenty-five man crew survived. Several of the captains turned back, only to be chastened and threatened by Henry and refitted and sent south again.

In 1455 a Venetian in Henry’s service, Alvise da Cadamosto, watched anxiously as the pole star, theretofore the guiding light of all European navigators, sank from sight beneath the northern horizon. But he was cheered when, as if by way of compensation, the “six large and wonderfully bright stars” of the Southern Cross hove up into view. In 1488, twenty-eight years after Prince Henry’s death, Bartholomeu Diaz finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and ten years later Vasco da Gama reached India, after a stormy, ninety-five-hundred-mile voyage that consumed ten months and twelve days. Asked what he was seeking, Da Gama answered, “Christians and spices.”6

The investment paid off, and by the end of the century the Portuguese annually were importing seven hundred kilograms of gold and ten thousand slaves from Africa. They traded wheat for the gold; the slaves generally could be obtained for free. Recalled one of Henry’s men who took part in a raiding party:

Our men, crying out, “Sant’ Iago! San Jorge! Portugal!” fell upon them, killing or capturing all they could. There you might have seen mothers catch up their children, husbands their wives, each one escaping as best he could. Some plunged into the sea; others thought to hide themselves in the corners of their hovels; others hid their children under the shrubs … where our men found them. And at last our Lord God, Who gives to all a due reward, gave to our men that day a victory over their enemies; and in recompense for all their toil in His service they took 165 men, women, and children, not counting the slain.7

In all, over one million slaves were captured and brought to Europe by the Portuguese.

Unknown to the Europeans, the Chinese, rulers of the greatest land in the fabled East, were trading along Africa’s east coast while the Portuguese were exploring its west coast. Theirs was a more venerable and less violent campaign. They mounted expeditions of thousands of men in fleets of junks each five times or more the size of the Portuguese caravels, conducted peaceful trade backed by this show of force, and are recorded to have resorted to violence on only three occasions in a century of exploration. But the Chinese furled their sails following the death of the adventurous emperor Yung Lo. By the time Da Gama reached India the Chinese antiexploration faction had made it a crime to build an oceangoing junk and had burned the ships’ logbooks—some of which are thought to have contained accounts of voyages extending across the Pacific as far as to the Americas—on grounds that they contained “deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things.”8 (Which, by the way, was just what Western critics said of Marco Polo’s account of China.)

Henry the Navigator’s reconnaissance of Africa, A.D. 1455–1498.

The Portuguese, in contrast, were smaller in number but fierce with the torch and the sword. The first colonist in Portugal’s first colony, Joad Goncalves of Madeira, set the island afire. Da Gama and his successor Pedro Cabral “tortured helpless fishermen,” writes R. S. Whiteway in his The Rise of Portuguese Power in India, 1497–1550. He adds that

Almeida tore out the eyes of a Nair who had come in with a safe-conduct because he suspected a design on his own life; Albuquerque cut off the noses of the women and the hands [of the men] who fell into his power on the Arabian coast. To follow the example of Almeida and sail into an Indian harbor with the corpses of unfortunates, often not fighting-men, dangling from the yards, was to proclaim oneself a determined fellow.9

Columbus was a fighting man, shaped, as we might expect, more in the Portuguese than in the Chinese mold. His destiny, he felt, had been sealed on August 13, 1476, when he floated to shore just up the coast from Prince Henry’s institute at Sagres, clutching an oar and leaving behind the burning wreck of the ship in which he had been fighting in the battle of Cape St. Vincent (on the Portuguese side, against his native Genoa). To be wringing the salt water out of his shirt on the beach near Sagres was just the sort of thing Columbus expected from a life he believed to be directed by the hand of God. He took his first name seriously, thought of himself as Christophoros, the “Christ carrier,” whose mission it was to discover “a new heaven and a new earth.”

He was already something of an anachronism—a dead-reckoning navigator in an epoch of ever improving charts and navigational instruments, a sometime pirate in an age when violence at sea was busily being turned into a state monopoly, an amateur scholar in an era of growing professionalism. “Neither reason nor mathematics nor maps were any use to me,” he wrote of his discovery of America, which he died believing was Asia. “Fully accomplished were the words of Isaiah.”10 He had in mind Isaiah 11:11: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyr’-i-a, and from E’-gypt, and from Path’-ros, and from Cush, and from E’-lam, and from Shi’-nar, and from Ha’-math”—and here came the part that spoke most vividly to Columbus—“and from the islands of the sea.” The “islands of the sea” were the Indies. To “recover the remnant of his people” was what the Portuguese slavers had been doing in Africa, reclaiming lost souls for Christ. Cruel work in the short term, it was thought to be worth it in the end. The chronicler Gomez Eannes de Azurara observed that when Prince Henry, “mounted upon a powerful steed,” picked out 46 slaves for himself from a cargo of 223 men, women, and children huddled wretchedly in a field in Lagos, Portugal, an act that required that he “part fathers from sons, husbands from wives, brothers from brothers,” he “reflected with great pleasure upon the salvation of those souls that before were lost. And certainly his expectation was not in vain, since … as soon as they understood our language, they turned Christians with very little ado.”11

Columbus was to carry on a similar crusade in the New World. He longed to reach the East for the usual reasons: Out there was a rich continent, the conquest of which could bring a man wealth and glory and (if Toscanelli could be believed) even wisdom. The brave and irresponsible argument by which he persuaded Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his expedition was not that the world was round—every educated person knew that—but that it was small.*“I have made it my business to read all that has been written on geography, history, philosophy, and other sciences,”12 Columbus said, but the lamp of his learning cast its narrow beam only on those maps and old geographies that most severely underestimated the dimensions of the terrestrial globe. By marshaling a total of eight different geographical arguments, all tending to make the globe smaller and Asia larger than they really are, Columbus arrived at the extraordinary conclusion that the distance from the Canary Islands to the Indies was only 3,550 nautical miles—less than one third the actual figure. “Thus Our Lord revealed to me that it was feasible to sail from here to the Indies, and placed in me a burning desire to carry out this plan,” Columbus wrote.13 His position was simple: God was right and the professional geographers were wrong.

Columbus’s plan appeared foolhardy to anyone who possessed a realistic sense of the dimensions of the earth. To sail westward to Asia, as the geographers of the court at Castile took pains to inform Columbus, would require a voyage lasting approximately three years, by which time he and his men would surely be dead from starvation or scurvy.* The voyage had been attempted twice before, by Moorish explorers out of Lisbon and by the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa in the thirteenth century; none had been heard from since. Columbus endured ten years of rejection on such grounds by the geographers of the leading courts of Europe. “All who knew of my enterprise rejected it with laughter and mockery,” he recalled, but the pilot light of his destiny shone on undimmed. He replied to the scorn of the experts with his collection of shrunken-earth maps, Aristotle’s assertion “that there is continuity between the parts about the pillars of Hercules and the parts about India,”15 and Seneca’s prophecy that “an immense land” lay beyond Ultima Thule. All this Columbus delivered up with thundering certitude; one searches his writings in vain for any trace of the skeptical, empirical temper of the scientist. He would be admiral of the ocean sea, the man who opened, to the west, a shorter route to the wealth of Asia than the Portuguese had managed to eke out by sailing south and east.

The queen decided to give him a shot at it, arid Columbus sailed in 1492, a pillar of unblinking zeal. He set his hourglass (inaccurately) by observing transits of the sun and noting the position of the Little Dipper. He navigated (accurately) by watching the compass. He corrected for variations in magnetic north by sighting the north star at both its easternmost and westernmost excursions—this a precaution that Columbus himself had developed, and one more important in 1492, when Polaris stood 3.3 degrees from the pole, than today, when the precession of the earth’s axis has brought it to within 1 degree of true north.

Once embarked on the path of his destiny, Columbus was unshakable in his resolve to persevere. When his crewmen threatened to mutiny after a month at sea, he told them, as his son Ferdinand recorded his words, “that it was useless to complain, he had come [to go] to the Indies, and so had to continue until he found them, with the help of Our Lord.”17 Had America not intervened, he would certainly have led them to their deaths. Instead, at 2:00 A.M. on the night of October 12, 1492, Rodrigo de Triana, lookout aboard the Pinta, squinting westward toward where the bright star Deneb was setting, saw in the moonlight a distant spit of land, cried out, “Tierra! Tierra!,” and claimed his reward as the first to sight India. The natives who beheld Columbus’s three ships by the first light of dawn ran from hut to hut, shouting, “Come see the people from the sky!”

“They bear no arms, nor know thereof,” Columbus noted, “for I showed them swords and they grasped them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance.”18 He insisted that the natives be treated “lovingly,” but business was business, and soon many were on their way to the Old World in chains.

Columbus on his subsequent voyages wandered from paradise to hell, laying eyes on some of the most beautiful islands on Earth but also suffering from thirst, starvation, and attacks by the “Indians.” As the years passed and evidence for the true dimensions of the earth mounted, he took refuge in the unique hypothesis that the earth was small toward the north, where he had rounded it, and large elsewhere: Perhaps, he wrote, the world “is not round as it is described, but is shaped like a pear, which is round everywhere except near the stalk where it projects strongly; or it is like a very round ball with something like a woman’s nipple in one place, and this projecting part is highest and the one nearest heaven”—the breast being where other navigators measured the circumference of the globe, and the “nipple … nearest heaven” being where Columbus sailed.19

Toward the end Columbus roamed the coasts of the New World in a state of gathering madness. He kept a gibbet mounted on the taffrail of his ship from which to hang mutineers, and made use of it so frequently that at one point he had to be recalled to Cadiz in chains. Crewmen on his final voyage watched warily as their captain hobbled around the deck, his body twisted by arthritis, his wild eyes peering out from under an aurora of tangled hair, searching endless coastlines for the mouth of the River Ganges. He threatened to hang anyone who denied they were in India. He sent back shiploads of slaves, which alarmed his queen, and cargos of gold, which delighted them both. “O, most excellent gold!” Columbus wrote. “Who has gold has a treasure with which he gets what he wants, imposes his will in the world, and even helps souls to paradise.”20 He died poor.

Gold outweighed the stars in the balance sheets of the exploratory enterprise. Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, sent Cortez a gold disk the size of a cartwheel representing the sun, and another of silver representing the moon; soon he was Cortez’s prisoner, and soon thereafter dead. Atahualpa of Peru sued for his freedom by filling his cell with gold higher than a man could reach, but Pizarra had him strangled nevertheless; he would have burned him had Atahualpa not agreed to accept baptism.

The New World’s loss was the Old World’s gain. As the traders and explorers had hoped, Portugal and Spain—and, through Spain, Holland and Britain—prospered at the expense of Africa and America. The greatest profits, however, came not in coin but in knowledge, tools, and dreams; Toscanelli, in a skewed way, had been right. Blue-water sailing called for improved navigational instruments and better charts of the earth, sea, and sky, all of which promoted the development of geography and astronomy. Schools of navigation were established in Portugal, Spain, England, Holland, and France, and their graduates joined a growing professional class adept at applied mathematics and steering by the stars. The independent, self-reliant spirit of the explorers touched those on land as well, eroding medieval confidence in ancient authority; wrote one of Prince Henry’s captains, “With all due respect to the renowned Ptolemy, we found everything the opposite of what he said.”21

More importantly though less distinctly, the great explorations opened up the human imagination, encouraging Western thinkers to regard not only the continents and seas but the entire planet from a more generous perspective. The dimensions of the known world had doubled by the year 1600, prompting a corresponding expansion in the cosmos of the mind. Heartened by the decline of the old authorities and by the adventuresome spirit of Columbus and the other explorers, the scholars of what would become the Renaissance began to imagine themselves traveling not only across the surface of the earth but also up into space. As Leon Frobenius was to write in a later century, “Our view is confined no longer to a spot of space on the surface of this earth. It surveys the whole of the planet…. This lack of horizon is something new.” Nicholas of Cusa pointed out that “up” and “down” are relative terms, postulated that each star might be its own center of gravity, and suggested that if we lived on another planet we might assume that we occupied the center of the universe. Leonardo da Vinci was forty years old when Columbus reached the continent to which Leonardo’s friend Amerigo Vespucci would lend his name, and he was a friend as well to Paolo Toscanelli, the astronomer who urged Columbus on his way. Imbued with an explorer’s vision, Leonardo cast his mind’s eye out into space and imagined that the earth from a distance would look like the moon:

If you were where the moon is, it would appear to you that the sun was reflected over as much of the sea as it illumines in its daily course, and the land would appear amid this water like the dark spots that are upon the moon, which when looked at from the earth presents to mankind the same appearance that our earth would present to men dwelling in the moon.22

Copernicus was a student at the University of Cracow when Columbus landed in the Indies. He was forty-nine years old when Magellan’s ship completed its circumnavigation of the globe. He sent his mind’s eye journeying to the sun, and what he saw turned the earth into a ship under sail, assaying oceanic reaches of space undreamed of since the days of Aristarchus of Samos.

*The myth that Columbus was out to prove the world round was invented 130 years after the fact, and subsequently was popularized by Washington Irving.

*The circumnavigation of the earth by Ferdinand Magellan would prove the geographers right. In the course of that grueling, three-year voyage Magellan was killed, most of his men died, and his collaborator, the cosmographer Rui Faleiro, went insane. Wrote Magellan’s shipmate Antonio Pigafetta of the privations suffered during their crossing of the Pacific, “I believe that nevermore will any man undertake to make such a voyage.”14

As Columbus was a practical, unbookish man and not (yet) insane, presumably he had some reason other than the old geographies to think his voyage would succeed. We do not know what this was, but can speculate that he heard sailors’ tales of sighting the coast of South America when driven west by winds while trying to round the Cape of Good Hope, or knew that the Gulf Stream, which flows east, carries fresh horsebeans and other signs of a reasonably proximate landmass. The explorer Thor Heyerdahl even proposes that Columbus heard of Leif Erikson’s discovery of America, either from Vatican sources or during a visit to Iceland that Columbus is said by his son to have made at the age of twenty-six.16