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    Celestial Navigation as a college course
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2010 Apr 11, 17:08 -0700

    Spinning off from the "professionalism in Navy" thread...

    John, you wrote:
    "That's a great story. Her class is now being taught by a guy named Phil Sadler. i don't how Phil ranks up with Francis, but I know that he takes the students out for a practical exam on a whale watching cruise to have them take sightings etc."

    Celestial navigation classes used to be fairly common at major universities in the US especially in the period right around the Second World War since many students were expected to go into the service. Few such classes now exist in the college catalogue, but Harvard's remains and it is said to be the longest-running course at the university. That legacy alone helps keep it alive.

    Phil Sadler did a presentation on the celestial navigation course, as it is taught today at Harvard, at the Navigation Weekend in Mystic in 2008. From the sound of it, it is very much a "meta-navigation" class. Students are asked to describe the motions of the planets and Sun and Moon using interpretive dance moves. He's quite proud of this, and while it sounds fun and may help "burn in" a memory for some students, it's clearly light-weight. Sadler is convinced that students never really learn the basics and so they study things that are normally part of a middle school science curriculum, like the phases of the Moon and the causes of the seasons. He likes to show a brief series of video interviews with Harvard students on their graduation day (this was c.1990) asked to explain the causes of the seasons and making a complete mess of it. I can think of many possible explanations for these results from nervousness on camera to hangovers to confusingly-worded questions, and profound ignorance of basic science is the least likely, I think. Yes, Sadler's "celestial navigation" students do learn to take celestial sights and even clear them using tables, but it's one activity among many. I asked him how the class would differ from one that might be called "Fun with Positional Astronomy", and he said that that's just what it is. The students do have to produce a term project applying what they have learned to something far afield from their areas of expertise, for example archaeo-astronomy. He displayed some examples of these projects, and they're nice, but this is clearly not a challenging class. It may well deserve the old term "gut" --a class permitted to be easy so that students nearly incompetent at math and science can complete the science requirement, and that's how it's been known for decades. I should add that it was known as a "gut" also when it was more literally a class in celestial navigation (see my post on its status in 1967 here: http://fer3.com/x.aspx/07028).

    You added:
    "Sadly, the course was attacked by Prof. Harry Lewis, who said that it wasn't worthy of counting for science credit."

    I have to say that I agree with that, and I might have agreed with that even when Wright was teaching. Anyone can learn celestial navigation. It is not difficult and it is rarely intellectually challenging, UNLESS you get very deep into its history or theory, and it is not normally college-level material at any school, let alone Harvard. But a genuine, mathematical course in positional astronomy does have a place in an astronomy major's education, and it could incorporate much of what we know as "nautical astronomy" as an appealing subset. A detailed course in historical astronomy, historical mathematics, and historical navigation could also be made challenging and worthwhile. The trouble is that courses like these might only be appropriate for students with some considerable preparation and background in math and some astronomy so they would not attract many students. Those with the right preparation would be spending their time on physics and serious mathematics courses, more likely than not, so that they can get into the grad school of their choice.

    Now that I've said all that, I better add that I am sure that there were plenty of people who have taken celestial navigation at Harvard either recently or a few decades ago who made the most of it and found it intensely educational and worth every penny. Whether those fortunate exceptions justify the existence of the course... that I don't know.

    -FER
    PS: While I'm thinking of it, there's still room in the Introductory Celestial Navigation: Lat/Lon at Noon class that I'm teaching at Mystic Seaport this coming weekend, April 17-18. This one is just over half full. It wouldn't appeal to many NavList types, who are already beyond that, but if you know people looking for a good starter class, send them my way.


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