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    Re: A Science or an Art
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2010 Dec 8, 21:11 -0800

    Brendan Kinch, you wrote:
    "I firmly believe that many contributors to this forum should move to another forum called MathList."

    You're kidding, right?

    Different interests are welcome here as long as they are relevant to celestial navigation and other forms of traditional navigation. Mathematical discussions will continue here and may at times dominate discussions. A great many people enjoy such topics, and it's part of what keeps celestial navigation interesting for them (and me, too). Discussions of practice and history including stories from individuals about their personal navigation experiences will continue here and may dominate at other times. Most of us enjoy those topics (also including me).

    As for celestial navigation, it is neither science nor art. It is a practical skill. Or at best it is a type of engineering. Of course engineering cannot exist without science to create it, so it is much closer to science than art.

    Perhaps the best proof that celestial navigation is not an "art" is that it can be learned from a book and in a fairly short period of time. It requires no "personal genius" or insight or intuition and no lifelong devotion to become sufficiently skilled in it to cross an ocean. It can even be learned as a rote task, very much like following a cookbook recipe. Indeed, that is exactly why it was so hugely successful. Celestial navigation did not depend on years of study under a master tutor. This distinguishes it from most of the more ancient traditions of navigation which could very well be counted as "arts".

    The proof that celestial navigation is not a science is simpler. Sciences discover new knowledge. The practitioners of "nautical astronomy" could be counted as scientists at a rather basic level since they try to develop new methods of navigating by the stars. But navigators taking sights and working celestial navigation problems are definitely not doing science. What they are doing is "scientific" in that they use technical tools and methods, but it is a fixed systematic set of rules (unless a navigator chooses to expand his or her skills, either out of personal interest or a desire for professional advancement). In this sense, it very closely resembles the disciplines of engineering.

    You wrote:
    "A mile or three here or there did not matter "

    A mile? Sure, no problem. That's within reasonable expectations for celestial navigation. But three? Errors that large should be relatively rare if we do things correctly. You note that your impressions are based on "pre-GPS" navigation. If so, then, of course, you had very few independent means to estimate the accuracy of your fixes. I think it was Hewitt who mentioned this most recently, but others have noted this, too: navigators today get much better feedback while they're learning because they can immediately compare their celestial fixes with extremely accurate latitudes and longitudes, surely never in doubt by as much as even a quarter of a mile, using GPS or even just online mapping tools. I certainly wouldn't tell anyone that they're failing if they're just three miles out, but there's definitely room for improvement. With a good metal sextant, they should expect intercepts with errors of a mile or so. Hewitt and David Burch and others get one nautical mile accuracy even from plastic sextants which I think is quite impressive. This whole "don't worry about a few miles here or there" can go very much the other way, too. I recently heard a navigation instructor tell a student not to worry about 8 minutes of arc because that might just be his "personal error". THIS is how celestial navigation will fall into decadence --when people DO NOT worry about accuracy, not the other way around. You can tell you're dealing with "meta"-navigation when accuracy no longer matters.

    You concluded:
    "I think if PRESERVATION is the goal of the forum, then the confidence of those only now starting to practice celestial navigation should never be undermined by those here who can argue over getting the accuracy down to that Nth degree. Keep It Simple. There are very few actual contributors here – let’s see some more budding navigators being proud to say that they have got a position line from their sextant and want to try more. "

    I encourage newcomers to join NavList in every way that I can. I ACTIVELY promote NavList every chance I get, and I hope you do the same. I tell them that they shouldn't judge by some currently running discussion that might seem a little ethereal or complicated, and that they should just dive in and ask whatever question they feel like or tell us about their own experiences practicing celestial navigation. These "budding navigators" will not just pop into existence out of thin air, you know. We have to recruit them (note that phase in the "Life Cycle of Online Discussions" in a recent post). And remember, too, that most people have better things to do than posting on NavList. They're busy posting on Facebook. And it's possible that the casual atmosphere there will one day displace NavList and its more technical discussions --but right now, it's not even close. For now, NavList is the only place on the Internet that I have found with any significant traffic regarding celestial navigation broadly. It is what it is.

    -FER


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