On and off for the last year and a half, I’ve been obsessing on astrolabes. I’d master (or so I thought) one of its functions — say, figuring out what time the sun will set on a given day. Then I’d give astrolabes a rest, focus on a review or other deadline, and come back to them only to find I had to revisit some of the basics and relearn the process. Then I’d have to break away and the cycle would begin again until, one day, the fundamentals seemed to click, I wasn’t having to start from scratch, and some of the sequence of actions even seemed obvious. (Barbara Oakley of the uber popular ‘Learning How to Learn’ could have used me as a case study for how we best master new material!)
Now, as much as I really wanted to understand how astrolabes worked, I know I never would have made the time to learn on my own… I need allies. Or, better yet, a deadline. Richard Doughty, editor of AramcoWorld magazine, supplied both. I now had to master at least the basics of astrolabes or I’d be in breach of contract.
What I didn’t realize was that the article I’d agreed to write would itself become a multi-pronged project. When Doughty asked me to include some of the history of the astrolabe, we discussed doing this in a sidebar. But just about every article I’ve read on astrolabes does this. “How about presenting this in graphic novel form,” I asked, half expecting Doughty to laugh. Instead he said my favorite word: “Yes!” Which is how I got to work with the talented and delightful Ivy Johnson,
“How about a video,” Doughty then said. A video? Who’d ever want to watch a middle-aged woman struggling to learn a medieval instrument? But just as I was about to shake my head, a thought popped to mind: what if Isa, my step-daughter and frequent co-conspirator, did it with me? All of a sudden, a video seemed like a fine idea. Doughty connected us with the wonderful David Wells, and little by little all the pieces came together in a video that we hope is half as much fun to watch as it was to make.
As for the article… yes, I finally wrote that, too, chronicling what I learned first using paper astrolabes and then one in wood that I had made by Brandt Graves at Division. Now that all the edits are done and the article with its graphic ‘sidebar’ is published, the time has come to wrap up my little astrolabe and send it to the AramcoWorld offices where it will, I hope, inspire others to try their hand at mastering one of the world’s first computers.