You read that right: sundials. According to an article in The Telegraph, sundials are at risk of dying out.
This will come as shocking news, no doubt, to anyone that thought sundials had already died out, which is everyone.
Nic Brunetti, the author of the article and most bored journalist currently employed on the planet, spoke to Dr. Frank King of Cambridge about the rapidly diminishing … industry, I guess? … of sundials. Let’s take a journey.
“Dr Frank King estimated sundial experts were now down to their last 100 around the globe.”
Frankly (ha), that seems like more than we need. Sundials are not important in any sense of the word.
He said few young people were rigorously tackling the maths required to design the timepieces – with British schools “scraping the surface” when it came to algebra, trigonometry and geometry.
I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure that Dr. King is overstating the complexity of a sundial just a tad. Not only do sundials (invented in ~1500 BC) predate trigonometry by a good 1200 years, according to Wikipedia, but I’m 99% sure I made a sundial in elementary school by putting a pencil through a paper plate.
How was I able to do that? Because sundials are not that complicated. Here’s a rough guideline for how to make a sundial:
- Put a stick in the ground
- Draw a line due north from that stick. If you don’t know which way north is, use a compass (a far more modern invention than the sundial)
- Write a “12” next to that line
- Wait an hour, then write a “1” next to that line
That’s most of it. The ancients didn’t have compasses, so they had to wait until the sun was at its highest, which they did by marking the shadows cast by the sun until they figured out which shadow was shortest, at which point they called that whatever the ancient Egyptian word for “noon” was.
Then, of course, the ancients would have noticed that their sundial markings from the summer didn’t line up in the winter when the sun is lower and days are shorter, so they would have drawn all these complicated curves to explain the variations of the seasons.
Does that sound mind-bogglingly tedious? That’s because it was. You see, once ancient peoples figured out how to farm, they could delegate food production to a few people instead of everyone, giving the intellectual elite enough free time to stare at a fucking stick all day for months on end.
Keep in mind that the Egyptians, who invented the sundial, didn’t even need it. They had already invented hourglasses and similar devices called “water clocks,” in which you put a bowl with a hole in it into a basin of water. The bowl fills up and when it sinks, an hour (or whatever) has passed.
Which brings me back to the supposedly rigorous mathematics required to build sundials. Sundials aren’t complicated, they aren’t necessary, they’ve literally never been necessary, and also, is Dr. King aware that we still teach math?
I took algebra, trigonometry, and geometry in school. So did millions of other people. All that math is still out there in the banks of human knowledge. If all memory of sundials suddenly vanished from human history tomorrow, and then someone thought “let’s make a way to tell time from a stick,” we could definitely figure it out.
“To get young people interested in sundials is extraordinarily challenging”
YOU DON’T SAY. “Hey kids! Check this out! It tells time, but not when it’s cloudy or in the night time. And it’s only accurate to about 10 minutes. And you can’t move it or it won’t work any more. Sure, other clocks can tell you the phases of the moon, the day of the week, and give you more precise readings than “two-ish,” but can they be constructed by a cave person? THEY CANNOT.”
But Dr. King isn’t going to sit back and let sundials be lost to the annals of history like the trebuchet or the Archimedes screw or the astrolabe (all of which are much more recent inventions and yet, still, obsolete because obviously). Why? Because sundials are still super important, guys.
Dr King who is the university bellringer at Cambridge and the keeper of the sundial on Great St Mary’s Church, said those with sundial expertise could design spaceships and power driverless cars – because the mathematical insight is akin to the one used for GPS technology.
“Whilst we can live without sundials, I’m worried we cannot live without communication satellites and someone needs to have the knowhow to do that,” he said.
Listen, I’m not a trained mental gymnast, but I’ve been a keen spectator of the sport for years. I’ve watched people contort their minds into the most stupendous shapes for the sake of an argument, so I’m usually pretty good at connecting the dots between two points in an argument.
Dr. King has stumped me. I cannot, for all my experience, figure out how he thinks that “the mathematical insight is akin to the one used for GPS technology.” First of all, instrument-aided navigation didn’t start to show up in human history until the 1200s —roughly 2500 years after sundials were invented. If they were somehow useful for navigation, you’d think the Egyptians would have figured that out earlier.
Secondly, GPS uses timed electromagnetic signals from satellites to base stations on Earth. That signal needs to be precise to a few nanoseconds. It’s so sensitive, in fact, that general relativity has to be taken into account — clocks run slower nearer to the earth than farther away, and that difference matters.
Ignore the technological barriers of getting a satellite into space — just the very idea of satellite-based navigation requires levels of math that weren’t even conceived until the 20th century.
Which brings me to my last point. Dr. King says there are fewer than 100 sundial experts in the world, right? He also says that in their “heyday,” there were upwards of 600, which is also a small number. So if we’re running out of sundial experts, how the fuck are all these GPS satellites and self-driving cars doing so well? Could it be that the hundreds of people in the Air Force’s 2nd and 19th Space Operations Squadrons, the ones responsible for keeping GPS satellites in the air — and the thousands of people that had to develop the system and get the satellites in the air — also know some math?
And that’s not to mention the thousands of people and billions of dollars being poured into self-driving cars by companies like Tesla, Uber, and Google. How many sundials have the collective employees and investors of those built? I don’t like to speculate, but it’s zero.
Sorry, Dr. King. Sundials are dying, and you know what? That’s probably fine.